2008: PLANET NARNIA

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Planet Narnia by Michael Ward, New York, Oxford University Press, 2008; 347 pp.; finished 4/17/8; Rated: 10

At first I thought my review of this book should simply say, “Words cannot express.” And leave it at that. That’s probably what I should say. But I’ll say a bit more.

I started reading the Narnia books at the age of 16 (that’s 33 years ago for anyone who’s counting) and I have kept reading them since then. I have read them to my children. I have shared them with others. I have taught classes on them. I have read practically all the other books about them. For heaven’s sake, I used to own a hairstyling shop called “Aslan’s Lair”. But NOTHING prepared me for Fr. Michael’s (he is an Anglican Priest) magnificent discovery which he shares with the rest of us in Planet Narnia.

The reason I hesitate to review this book is for fear that someone will read my review, say “So what?” and then not read Ward’s tome. Here it is, in a nutshell: the author discovered (quite by accident – a “Eureka!” moment; his discovery was, he writes, “entirely unexpected and fortuitous”) that Lewis has a hidden theme that joins all the works together. Scholars have long looked for this link. Some have said the stories retell the Christ story through the character of Aslan the Lion. And while Aslan is a Christ figure, and some of the themes of the Christ story are found in the stories (especially in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), Lewis was not fond of allegory and these stories are not allegories of the events of the life of Christ.

What, then, ties them together? Most have concluded the link doesn’t exist. Ward shows the link is – get this – medieval cosmology! What? Yes, medieval astronomy/astrology (the two weren’t separated until modern times). It all started when late one night before retiring to bed, Ward, who was doing his doctoral thesis on Lewis’ Christology, took down Lewis’ book of poems and read “The Planets”. In the “Jupiter” section of this poem Lewis writes of that planet’s effect:

…Of wrath ended
and woes mended, of winter passed
And guilt forgiven, and good fortune
Jove is master…

The phrase leapt out at him: “winter passed”- the White Witch’s winter in Narnia brought to an end! “Guilt forgiven” – Edmund’s betrayal healed by Aslan’s sacrifice!

A few lines further the poem speaks of Jupiter’s children:

…”helps and heroes, helms of nations,
Just and gentle, are Jove’s children”.

Didn’t the four children enter Narnia to help, and to be heroes? Weren’t they made “helms” (heads) of nations? Wasn’t Edmund named by Aslan, “Edmund the Just” and Susan was called by him “Susan the Gentle“?

Ward scrambled to his books and started looking for other clues and found them all! In medieval cosmology the Earth was the center, and there were seven “planets” which moved through “the heavens” (ever heard of “the seven heavens”?) influencing (not controlling) life on our planet. The seven planets (and the seven heavens “ruled” by the planets) were:

Luna (the moon)
Mercury
Mars
Sol (the Sun)
Venus
Jupiter
Saturn.

We get the names of the seven days of the week from these planets. And Lewis uses their qualities and effects as the “atmosphere” or “mood” of the books:

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Jupiter
Prince Caspian: Mars
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Sol
The Silver Chair: Luna
The Horse and His Boy: Mercury
The Magician’s Nephew: Venus
The Last Battle: Saturn

The poem “The Planets”, written in 1935 (years before the Narnia tales), serve as a kind of “key” to the books and their cosmic connections. And the “qualities” of the Planets (so strongly seen in Lewis’s “Space Trilogy”) saturate the books in the Narnia series.

Two more things: First, the footnotes are a book in themselves; I have underlined the footnotes almost as much as the main text. And second, you can read more at the author’s website: http://www.planetnarnia.com.

The day after I finished the book I had the good fortune of meeting Michael Ward and hearing him lecture. We conversed momentarily and I thanked him for forever enhancing my love and appreciation for Lewis as a craftsman. I will never read these stories in the same way again. A new light has been shed on them which makes them all the more beautiful and joyous. Ward signed my well-marked book for me: “To Ken: With Jovial regards, from Michael Ward”.

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2007: JAMES: THE APOSTLE OF FAITH

james.jpgJames: The Apostle of Faith/David P. Scaer/Wipf and Stock/New York/republished 2004/209pp/Finished 10/1/07/Rating: 10

2007 was a bad year for books read. I only finished about ten books – less than half my goal. I’m not sure what happened other than the busy schedule I had. I started a bunch that I didn’t finish, and still hope to finish, including the Pope’s book on Jesus. I THOROUGHLY enjoyed the fun read by Pratchett and Gaiman, Good Omens, but when it came down to it, James: The Apostle of Faith was the winner. Here’s what I wrote about it when I read it:

In August I attended Bishop Rick Painter’s mens retreat in Prescott, AZ, where Bishop Fred Fick taught on the book of James. “OK. Well…OK…”, I thought, “any Bible study will be good and it will be great to see all the guys.” WOW was I setting my sights low! First, Bishop Fred is just such an incredibly good teacher. Secondly, he was using this book as his basis of teaching. Scaer’s book on James may well join a select group of five or six as the most significant I have ever read. Seriously!

Now, what I’m about to describe to you doesn’t sound too earth shattering, but it is. And the more you think about it and study out the implications, the more important it becomes. Here, in a very tiny nutshell, is the gist of the book:

1. The Epistle of James is the first book of the N.T. written. Before any of the Gospels. Before Paul’s writings (even before Paul’s conversion!). It was written shortly after the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, and before the Gospel was proclaimed to the Gentiles, while the church was still a Jewish entity (in short, the book of James was written between Acts 8 and 12). This means that when James seems like he’s making reference to something from the four Gospels, he isn’t. He’s making reference to JESUS himself, and the Four Gospels may indeed be depending on James (in fact Scaer suggests that Matthew specifically is a Jacobian Gospel, just as Mark is Petrine and Luke is Pauline). This means that James is not a “corrective” for people who have misunderstood Paul’s writings on grace – but that James is writing about grace and faith BEFORE Paul even comes along! This means that Paul references James, not vice versa.

2. Perhaps an even more startling insight is that James is written, not as a general epistle, but to a specific audience: priests (presbyters) who had been part of the Jerusalem Church, now scattered as a result of the persecution, and trying to tend to the scattered flock of believers that had once lived in Jerusalem but were now spread out in Judea, Samaria and other places. Scaer shows that the term “brothers” is a Jewish phrase specifically for religious leaders (check it out in the book of Acts!). So, here is Bishop James writing a pastor’s manual to priests under his direction who had no Gospels, no New Testament books at all, only the Old Testament to fall back on, and a strong temptation to be legalists. The epistle then becomes a corrective, not for misunderstood grace, but for misunderstood law. And it becomes a top notch directive for pastoring people.

I wish every deacon, priest and bishop would read this book. Thanks, Bishop Fred for sharing with me this treasure.

2006: Obedient Rebels

Jaroslav Pelikan
Obedient Rebels: Catholic Substance and Protestant Principle in Luther’s Reformation/Jaroslav Pelikan/New York, NY/Harper and Row/1964

I had a hard time deciding which book to choose as my favorite for 2006. It was between three.

I almost chose Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (translated by Edith Grossman). Voted, by a group of literature professors, as the best novel ever written, I had the joy of reading it over a period of time, laughing my way through the adventures of Quixote and Sancho Panza. I even took it with me to Spain and read it in Toledo and underneath the very windmills toward which the errant knight tilted!

I almost chose Living to Tell the Tale, the autobiography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom I believe to have written the most beautiful piece of literature I have ever read (One Hundred Years of Solitude). Amazingly, the autobiography is as beautiful and captivating as his fiction.

But I finally settled on Obedient Rebels by Jaroslav Pelikan. Pelikan, who died this year, is recognized by practically everyone from every Christian tradition as the most outstanding historian of the Christian faith in modern times. Having lived most of his life as a devout Lutheran, and being a scholar without peer of all things pertaining to Luther and company, a few years before his death he converted to the Orthodox Church where he rejoined the faith of his Slavic ancestors.

As an aside, before saying anything about this book, I want to add one other recommendation. I believe Pelikan’s commentary on Acts (Brazos Press) is the best commentary on any book of the Bible that I have yet read. It should belong in the library of every preacher and teacher of Holy Scripture.

Now, finally, the book of the year.

2005: The World is Flat

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The World is Flat/Thomas L. Friedman/Farrar, Strauss & Giroux/New York, NY/2005/496pp.

Friedman begins this captivating book by stating that in 1492 Christopher Columbus, looking for India, discovered the world was round, and that in our own time, looking for India, businesses have discovered the world is “flat”. By flat, he means that the playing field is getting level. An example: in times past, to access knowledge, one had to be near a significant library (the bigger the city, probably the better the resources). Now, because of the internet, a third-worlder living on a remote mountain village in Ecuador can have access to the same data as a person living next door to the library in New York City. The world is getting flat. Friedman reviews ten indicators of the world moving toward flatness. Not only is this a fascinating read, but I believe it has implications for missions and church growth in the future.

On a personal note, I was reading the book in May, while teaching a seminar in Manila. After the seminar I had a couple of free days and went to one of my favorite places on the planet: Puerto Galera, Mindoro (the small island west of Manila). To get there it’s a 2 hour car ride followed by a 2 hour boat ride, and a 5 minute walk along the beach to a quaint little hotel (Hotel Portofino). It’s a great place to get away, relax, eat some good food and have the best snorkeling almost anywhere (it makes Caribbean snorkeling pretty much the equivalent of snorkeling in your bathtub – 70% of all aquarium fish come from the waters of the Philippines!). Anyway, I’m sitting out by the pool, in a hammock, smoking a cigar and drinking a mango daiquiri, reading The World is Flat, when my cell phone rings! It was Fr. Ken Tanner from Chicago, asking me where I was. He couldn’t believe it when I told him where he was calling and what I was doing. Proof positive that the world is flat!

2004: TIE: One Hundred Years of Solitude & The Open Society and its Enemies

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One Hundred Years of Solitude/Gabriel Garcia Marquez/Harper/New York, NY/2004/464pp

This one wins out for the sheer BEAUTY of language. The opening sentence of this book made me buy it: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” WHY was he facing the firing squad? Where? And what’s this about ice? I had to read it. This is an amazingly beautiful and haunting book. My son Ken says it is the reason reading was invented! Marquez tells the mystical tale of a Colombian family’s 100 year history. It is dark, tragic, beautiful, weird. I’m not saying it’s the best book I’ve ever read, but it may be the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. I gave it a 10.

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The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume One: Plato/Karl Popper/Princeton University Press/Princeton, NJ/1971/368pp.

My daughter-in-law Sarah handed me a book a year ago called “Wittgenstein’s Poker”. It was about a 15 minute heated dispute between two philosphers at Cambridge in the ’50s. This little book introduced me to Karl Popper. Margaret Thatcher calls him “my guru”, and Vaclav Havel says his philosophy is what brought down commmunism. So, I bought this book and it took me almost the whole of 2004 to read. VERY difficult, VERY complex, but for those with the fortitude to finish, it’s nothing short of an epiphany. The basic premise: Plato was the philosophical seed for totalitarianism, including Communism and Fascism (Stalin and Hitler). He lays out some powerful thoughts on a philosophy of freedom that has significant application not only to civil government, but to the Church and family. There have been five books that have changed my life. This is the fifth.

2003: Against Christianity by Peter Leithart

Against Christianity

Against Christianity/Peter Leithart/Canon Press/Moscow, ID/2003/160pp

My good friend Victor Leal sent me this book. Since anything he’s ever sent me has been good I read it immediately. In consequence, I ordered a copy for all the clergy of the diocese and many bishops of the Church. Unconventional, provocative, orthodox. The basic point is this: The Church is the Kingdom of God correlative to the Polis/City of the classical world; consequently, the Church is called to be the new CITY of God – and our battle is not only against the powers of Hell, but against society as it stands against the Kingdom of God. Gee- that makes it sound kind of boring, but it’s amazing. Get it. Get one for your friends.