Snow days sometimes offer an opportunity for a different aspect of work. The last two days I’ve taken advantage of the time and worked ahead on worship. Another thing I did was finish some reading I started and had not finished. It isn’t unusual for me to have more than one book going at a time. It is unusual to have five unfinished. [I recently finished two of Diana Butler Bass’ books: (re-read) Religion After Christianity, and Grounded. I liked the latter better.]

Some months ago the whole political climate pushed me to re-read Cornell West’s Democracy Matters. This book is a followup to his prior book Race Matters. This one was reviewed as not living up to its predecessor in content or originality. I think it is uniquely West, but some of the structure (tripartite) seems forced and wooden.

I started this re-read because I wanted to revisit the chapter titled: “The Crisis of Christian Identity in America.” In the final paragraph of that chapter West writes:

I do not want to be numbered among those who sold their souls for a mess of pottage – who surrendered their democratic Christian identity for a comfortable place at the table of the westAmerican empire while, like Lazarus, the least of these cried out and I was too intoxicated with worldly power and might to hear, beckon, and heed their cries.

A 2004 NY Times review said of what West called a sequel to Race Matters that blamed a nihilism isolated in the African American community. Now,

West worries that nihilism has now spread to Americans of all races. “Many have given up even being heard,” he writes, and have succumbed to “sour cynicism, political apathy and cultural escapism.”

Unfortunately, West’s conclusions break down into a rambling disunity containing what can be seen as anti-semitism and odd attribution to everything from cocaine to weblogs. His conclusion in this book are not nearly as neat as his diagnosis. He attempts to offer a citizenship solution for the problems he’s outlined but that solution is confusing at times and disjointed.

In that chapter on Christian identity, West urges Christians “to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing…” which is to say in faith and trust. Although treated very briefly, it makes more sense to me than the democratic solution he offers later in the book. That solution, to me, is unconvincing. Nevertheless, it is this following, and ‘discernment’ of spirits that (I believe) is the core of a faithful discipleship in these days and times.

I’ve also been reading three other texts that might be categorized as light reading. The first, How’s Your Faith, by David Gregory; the second, The Road to Character by David Brooks, and the third, The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dali Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Gregory’s book chronicles his own journey toward spiritual clarity. Something more than mere curiosity usually precipitates this kind of personal exploration. For him, it was partially the loss of his job hosting Meet the Press. I saw that event as a ‘tipping Gregorypoint,’ and not necessarily the cause of his seeking. He identifies one early marker in his search when covering the White House for NBC and then President George Bush asked him: “How’s Your Faith?”

Raised as an ethic jew in a dysfunctional family system, Gregory seeks clarification (I think) like I might, by writing. He organizes his experiences into chapters: Pain, Love, Purpose, Transformation, Sacrifice, Humility, Doubt, Surrender, Forgiveness. The prologue and the epilogue are only important as a context setting and an opportunity for conclusion. The stories told are real and human which makes them speak. The voice in this writing seems honest and never contrived.

Gregory’s own struggles with his family and his discovery of faith resources come to illumine his path. He uses these characteristics as labels for each chapter. There are times when the ache contained in the text seems insurmountable. But, what is faith if not the ability to see beyond the present difficulties. Another sage once said, “who hopes for what they see?”

Similar in structure to Gregory’s book, David Brooks’ The Road to Character contains chapter long stories about individuals that Brooks uses to illustrate a particular quality of character. They are: The Summoned Self, Frances Perkins; Self-Conquest, Dwight Eisenhower; Struggle, Dorothy Day; Self-Mastery, George Marshall; Dignity, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin; Love, Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot); Ordered Love, Augustine; and Self Examination, Samuel Johnson.

The first chapter lays out an ‘old model’ for character and describes a shift to a new Brookshow and what of character. The Last chapter, The Big Me, is Brooks’ effort to knit together these qualities into a seamless garment. Each of the chapters are nicely full of the character and their qualities that lead to Brooks using them to illustrate a particular trait. It was easy to read a single chapter and put it down, pick it up later, as it didn’t really seem like starting and stoping at all.

What Brooks is building toward is a criticism of a social shift toward narcissism as a backdrop for our moral/ethical frame of reference. “The Big Me,” is his way of describing the shoddy and self serving ethics we witness in both the public square and in personal encounters.

Brooks describes our prevailing model as a “meritocracy, utilitarian, instrumentalist mindset.” In the end, this book is not a harkening back to the good ole days, but rather an attempt to capture the importance of the pendulum of character swinging back in the direction of those measures of greatness.

The Book of Joy is not altogether different. It is a wonderful account of two self-described ‘mischievous’ souls get together to discuss deep, deep, deep, spirituality. In the case of these two, this spirituality is born in the crucible of suffering. I don’t say this because suffering is a significant theme in Buddhism (which it is) or that colonialism in Africa caused immense suffering (which it did). I say this because the joy that these two masters speak about is not necessarily related to, or the product of, their suffering. What suffering sometimes produces is the ability to “lessen one’s self book of joyabsorption.” In this way, the book of joy picks up where Brooks’ text leaves off.

Much of the book discusses the what of true joy, its qualities. For me it was fun to read these descriptive stories told by the Dali Lama and the Archbishop. Neither men are the ‘stuffy’ spiritual masters you might anticipate. They are self-described mischief-makers. The narratives make this abundantly clear. After this descriptive body of the book, it is the chapter on the “Five Pillars of Joy” that describes personal qualities that precipitate joy. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the end of the book has a resource of spiritual practices that can help us move toward more joyful lives. This chapter is no afterthought that slaps a couple of pages on the finished book as if someone else added a study guide. It is apparent that these practices are the product of the lives of these two leaders. It alone is worth the price of admission.

The fifth book is an academic book. I was at an inter-faith event in Philadelphia in the wake of the desecration of the Jewish cemetery there when I overheard Rev. Dr. J. Jayakiran Sebastian, Dean of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia mention he was reading, Why Can the Dead Do Such Such Great Things: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation by Robert Bartlett. This book is thoroughly academic. The bibliography is almost 100 pages long. His comment went something like this: ‘why do we focus on the great things the dead do? Cannot the living do great things also?’ Don’t quote me on this.

Protestants like me have a certain disdain for an over emphasis on the Saints. But my own religious order (The Order of Corpus Christi) and its practice of morning and evening prayer runs you headlong into the observance of saints days. If you think Deadabout it, society has ‘canonized’ (or bastardized) the observance of certain saint’s days. Think Patrick, Valentine, even Nicholas. So it was interesting, if not exhausting, to read this very thorough account of how the saints became so important to the church.

Bartlett does due diligence in covering the early church through medieval church’s focus on the saints. He chronicles the shift from religious movement to religious institution and the parallel movement with the veneration of the saints.

While not really difficult reading this book is academic in its format and scope so is not for the faint of heart. For instance, the chapter on “Relics and Shrines” begins by discussing body parts. It isn’t until some 587 pages in when we finally get to what a reformed clergy person is waiting for: “Doubt and Dissent.” This opposition is not new, but is documented by Jerome as early as 400 AD, “Contra Vigilantium.” The upshot of this part of Bartlett’s study is that heretics and heretical saints should be suppressed. And, it is the powerful who get to decide who are the heretics.

In Bartlett’s chapter on “Reflections” he gets to some of the issues with the saints and the cult of the saints. One issue is that there are times when these saints are unrecognizable when compared to other pagan god’s. A human being, with a human life story, whose ‘afterlife’ is the source of supernatural power. There are similarities. There may also be similarities to the ‘cult of the ancestors’ found in many societies around the globe. But I would agree that similarity does not mean direct descendance or that they function the same within their own culture.

There you have it. Five books. My favorite? Two: The Book of Joy and Road To Character. The narrative in both made the reading enjoyable.