Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


Bookish Favorites: Spiritual Writing, Philosophy, and Essays, Part 1

Back in the autumn, before I lost my head to deadlines, I started a series of posts on my favorite books. I got as far as fiction (which is a good place to get), but never got around to the spiritual stuff, or the essay collections that have made me more opinionated than ever. And these, I simply must share. The books listed below bear the sort of writing that shapes my philosophy of life. They require a bit more of me than a novel, but they also articulate the truth of why I believe, think, and act the way I do. Some, I read in small bits, daily, as part of my devotions. Others, I devoured in a week because the pith of their message brought such a welcome revolution to my soul. Some of the writers are such intricate philosophers, I have to chew on every sentence (don't be ashamed to read Wendell Berry very slowly.) Some sweep me away. But all whisper in my brain after I've read them, stand beside me as I meet this modern problem or that moral quandary. They are guides and mentors who tromp through life alongside me and keep me straight on my path.

I will warn you, this list will be even more eclectic than my fiction list. I'm starting off with spiritual books, but will also include a good bit of philosophy, or modern essay. It will, I admit, take several posts and you'll probably want to knock me on the head for giving you such an impossibly long list of absolutely-must-read books. Oh well. I have organized this list mostly by author, since the themes of these authors are worth exploring throughout their books. Different titles bear different emphases. At the end of each post, I'll also list a few single titles I have found to be particularly enriching. So, here goes nothing, and... happy reading! (Again.)

Richard Foster I was seventeen when I discovered Foster's Streams of Living Water. There I was, restless, doubtful, questioning Christianity in general and Christians in particular, and he swept in with this history of the faith that felt like a grand tour of an ancient land. He identified the core elements of Christian belief, the ones absolutely necessary to orthodox faith, but then branched out into the different "streams," or emphases, of that faith. In reading that book, I came to see Christianity as a vivid drama of love, advancing through vastly different (and ever imperfect) people, personalities, countries, and times.

Then, I found Foster's Simplicity, and Prayer, and the habits of my devotional life were formed. Each of Foster's works on spiritual discipline and attentiveness drew me into this minute-by-minute way of experiencing, and practicing the real presence of God. Of course, now I know that Foster is one of the leading teachers of spiritual discipline in our time, a mentor to many of the most thoughtful writers and theologians alive. The grace of his work is that a seventeen-year-old girl can access his books just as readily as a Ph.D; his truth is constant, simple, and beautifully stated.

Madeleine L'Engle I have to say it; Madeleine L'Engle may have saved my faith. Tolkien too, but Madeleine especially. Right when I was most doubtful that God could love me, right when I needed proof that he was actually nice, I stumbled upon her Genesis Trilogy. Suddenly, I was awash in a world where stars spun in joy, and love lightened every atom of existence, and God's heart pulsed beauty into every corner of creation. I entered a world where music and story, art and song proclaimed a truth my heart knew and my mind was just learning to grasp.

L'Engle is an author who, above all, embraces the beautiful as a means of coming to a certain love of God. She healed the blindness I had in the way I perceived God as all about rules; she made me a witness to the wonders of the earth as powerful evidence of God's laughing, loving presence in the world. L'Engle is also the great explainer and defender, I think, of faith and art as inseparable. Her Walking on Water, is required reading for any artist. I will say in passing, that some find her spiritual ideas or views to be on the outer edges of orthodox. I would only say to read her with a heart ready to wonder, not dissect. She is a thoroughly alive sort of writer, which means she questions, posits, imagines, dares. Read her, and she'll dare you to do the same. A sampling:

"Those who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself."

"I share Einstein's affirmation that anyone who is not lost on the rapturous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe "is as good as a burnt out candle."

"Infinity is present in each part. A loving smile contains all art. The motes of starlight spark and dart. A grain of sand holds power and might."

C.S. Lewis Lewis is one of those writers whose work forms the bedrock of Christian thought. He has a rare combination of killer, Oxfordian logic with the most romantic of boyish imaginations. Therefore, his writing appeals to the active mind, and the yearning heart. Of his spiritual works, or philosophy, my favorites are The Abolition of Man, and The Weight of Glory, Surprised by Joy, and The Four Loves. Abolition has to do with education and morality in modern times. Glory, actually a sermon, pictures the eternal as it invades the present and changes everything we are. Lewis' work ranges from fairy tales (The Space Trilogy), to children's literature (The Chronicles of Narnia), to allegory (Pilgrim's Regress, and The Great Divorce), to straight out philosophy (most of his essays). Read as much of him as you can and you will get an education in basic literature, history, philosophy, and faith.

The constant element in Lewis is truth stated plainly, made clear for a hungry mind. But it's truth in a tight-fisted grip on beauty. In his books the absolutely true hovers on the edge of worlds we can't yet see but always wanted to know. Lewis is like Berry in stating just why a certain worldview works or doesn't, but he's far more like Tolkien in the epic, imaginative way he does it. And he's razor sharp through it all. A former student of Lewis' at Oxford said that Lewis would rip apart an argument or thesis with such rapier wit that his poor students were left speechless. But he did it with such hearty laughter and good-humored bluster that none of them minded. His Screwtape Letters, (an imagined correspondence between a head demon and his trainee) elucidates just how subtly evil tempts us. His Surprised by Joy, (spiritual autobiography) tells the story of how he, highly educated philosopher as he was, came to love God because of the "joy" that came to him in nature, in music, and books from his boyhood. He's one of those authors that everyone should read. Period.

More major authors soon, for now, a few single book reviews to finish:

Technopoly, by Neil Postman One of the things I am always wanting is someone to help me think about cultural change. Give me a bigger view of history, help me to understand how different my life is from someone a hundred years ago, and what that means. Postman does this; he helps his reader to identify just what has been gained or lost by technology. He does the same with entertainment in his Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book on my to-be-read-as-soon-as-I-find-a-copy list.

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell Joel (my Boston brother) and I listened to this on a three-day drive to his audition for a music school. The gist of this work is that the geniuses of the world (in sports, music, writing, etc.) are the result of particlar influences, practice, and opportunity, not chance. Think Mozart was just born writing symphonies? Go look at how much writing and playing he had done by the time he was ten, and you will wonder if maybe it was just plain old practice. Gladwell claims that it takes 10,000 hours of practice for someone to become a master, or "genius" in their chosen craft. When Joel and I got home from our trip, I think he headed straight to the piano, and I went for my journal and pen. We had work to do! I found this an empowering book because it helped me to understand that hard work truly does shape the outcome of my life and art.

Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination, by Vigen Guroian. This was such an affirming read for me. If you are interested in how stories form the soul, how deeply they can shape the heart of a child, read this book. Guroian, a professor of ethics and children's literature, writes about how the classic stories of children's literature, everything from The Velveteen Rabbit, to Grimm's fairy tales, communicate basic moral and spiritual values that will shape the adult life of the reader.