Thursday, January 20, 2011

{book}worm wednesday :: committed

The books currently on our nightstands (because honestly, that's really the only place the reading is happening these days) all seem to be long ones for some reason. That means the list today will be short, and most (or all) of these are not finished yet either. They are good books though, I tell you, which is why we are reading them.

The Kids:
The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
This book is charming and sweet in it's own E.B.White sort of way, who made us love a rather dull and conscientious pig, and a spider for crying out loud, and it's amazing how he can make you feel the same for a funny family of trumpeter swans. Louis can't "talk" like the rest of his kind, and it's disturbing and perplexing to his parents, and to him... until he learns to read and write which creates a whole new set of problems and adventures. I personally find the Cob (the father swan) the most hilarious of the bunch. He doesn't talk, he pontificates. But his wife just rolls her eyes and says what's what. They make me laugh.

The Husband:
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
I think I mentioned before that he was obsessively reading this book... and he still is.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most infuential writers and theologians of the 20th century. Most people know him as the author of The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, but his life was absolutely remarkable in his academic abilities coupled with a prophetic and strikingly counter-(church)cultural understanding of the community of believers. And it plays out in the startling, gripping tale of his life as it goes from academia and pastoral pursuits, to life as an undercover SS agent in Hitler's regime. A very challenging  and inspirational read.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (abridged and edited by Manuel Komroff)
I have an old paperback edition, with 621 pages of the thinnest (as in, lick your fingers and crinkle the pages each time to make sure you aren't skipping one), tissue-like paper with small, close together type. This alone has created it's own challenge. But there is something about those Russian authors that makes you feel you ought to read them. I've read some of Dostoyevsky and needed lots of additional materials to make it come alive for me. Yet I find myself often thinking back to The Grand Inquisitor passage in The Brother's Karamazov when I am struggling through the question of suffering in this life. I guess that means it was worth reading... and that the others will be as well.

I don't know if I'll find a similar passage that forever sticks with me in War and Peace, but I am pleasantly surprised to find I am enjoying and following along the story itself, after tackling and hurdling over the first few somewhat dry chapters. I'm starting to feel a sympathetic liking for Prince Andre and dear Pierre, for Natasha and Rostov. Only half way through at this point but happily determined to keep going.

Committed:: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert
This one has been a great conversation starter, if in no other place than the insides of my very own head.

So far in the reading of this book, I have appreciated several points she brings out concerning the way we currently view marriage and have treated it throughout history, but I also have questions about they way she handles these views. Understanding history is a tricky thing. It's an interpretive thing. A historian will (hopefully) examine primary documents and then begin to piece together an interpretation of events or ideas of that time. So when Gilbert claims that marriage has not always been treated as sacred or that it is evolving over time, I would probably interpret the information a bit differently.

Marriage has always been mistreated, and perverted in certain aspects ever since the Fall. But I would venture to say that it has also always been upheld and treated as sacred to some degree( by the grace of God) during those times as well. I have always appreciated how C.S. Lewis put it: that each era has its own strengths, and its own weaknesses, and it's easy to point those out in an era already dead and gone. But sometimes looking into the world of another time, can lead you to see the pitfalls in your own. I wonder this about the way we criticize marriage in past eras. Or the way we understand the historical treatment of women. It is easy to see the atrocities, because they are there in plain and awful sight... and to think we have attained so much good in the present. I wonder what those women (or men) would say if they were able to comment on our present day marriages and views on/treatment of women. Would they point out things we have lost, or are damaging, even within all our gains?

Another important bit to chew on...marriage as a moral issue: the author doesn't agree that it is one, which I understand. It's a trend these days to take it off the moral list. But everything is on the moral list. You can't say morality has no jurisdiction over some things (like the union of marriage), but then claim morality for the issues you still want it for (like the treatment of homosexuals, which I agreed with her sentiment on). In her argument for the goodness of same sex marriage, Gilbert cites the Greeks as being a culture that accepted it (and because they produced men like Aristotle and Socrates, and the framework for modern day democracy, we tend to get a bit woozy when we talk about the Greeks)... but failed to mention their acceptance of boy-love, also known as pedophilia. We still claim that as a moral issue today that is unacceptable. So without going into a huge diatribe on philosophy here, suffice it to say that I appreciated some of the points she brought out that deserve our careful attention, but with a different starting point for moral, ethical, and epistemological outworkings, I would disagree with many of her conclusions.

One of the things I have appreciated most thus far in the book however, was her musing on whether or not we put too much expectiation on our spouse and all that our marital union holds for us. I think this is true everywhere, and no less in the Christian community. If anything is now in danger of becoming simultaneously destroyed and made into a ridiculous icon of idolatry it is marriage and even the family. I think this is where her quote of the Apostle Paul is also a bit off. Taken in isolation, his statement about wishing everyone were "as he is", may have appeared to make the claim that marriage was bad or lesser than a solitary life wholly devoted to God... but closer inspection would reveal that his whole point was that it shouldn't be the all in all. It can't be. And most of us figure that out in the day to day life of marriage but somehow at the same time still expect that it should be the quintissential completion of our being. It won't be.

I believe in marriage, in the goodness of it, not because I think we're evolving and figuring out better and better ways to make it work for us, or because of it's utilitarian purposes, but because I believe it was formed within the good and perfect plan of God. Right now, in this fallen state of things, that means it is fraught with problems and abuses, failures and perversions, but the grace of God has not left us, and even though it is "not the way it's supposed to be," he is working in spite of it all. That is why there is the possibility of hope... in broken marriages, failed marriages, abandoned marriages, empty marriages, even good and healthy marriages. I'm committed because of this hope.


  1. Christine - I have just been browsing your blog and am completely enjoying all of your posts. How fun it would be if you could have joined us at your mom's book clubs!
    I too just started reading War and Peace - because, how can you not read it? I've just barely cracked the spine, but am really enjoying it.
    Thanks for your wonderful thoughts!

  2. I love War & Peace; it's one of my yearly rereads (although I always end up skipping at least one of the military scenes. :) Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is my favorite of his though, so if you haven't read it yet I'd HIGHLY recommend'd be a particularly interesting literary companion to Committed.

    Speaking of, I'm so glad you're reading Committed! There's so much I appreciated and so much I disliked, it's good to hear someone else's thoughts. I also really liked Gilbert's assessment that we culturally put too many expectations on our spouses as relates to our own fulfillment (and agree with you that we are often worse about it as Christians).

    Another thing I liked was her honesty about the negative impact marriage can have on women. Certainly worldwide (and even in North America) marriage can still be a terrible deal, for women in particular. I wish more popular Christian marriage speakers would recognize that as often feels so glossed over.

    One thing that I really disliked was her sweeping write-off of the church's involvement in marriage. One of the best projects I ever worked on was a paper documenting the development of marriage as a sacrament in the ancient and medieval church. And I learned that once the church got involved legally in marriage, the theology of marriage actually helped women (not always, but far more than I expected). There are all these wonderful bishops and popes reprimanding nasty, wife-abandoning kings, saying, "You're supposed to love her like Christ loves the church, you can't just walk away and get a new one!" Gilbert said absolutely nothing about that, and in so doing did a disservice to her readers...not to mention the church.

  3. War and Peace! Impressive. I can honestly say that is one book I will probably never read. (Watch, now that I put that out there I'll get some crazy itch to read it). :)
    I (sort of) read Committed. I say sort of because I couldn't get through much of it. As soon as Gilbert started talking about the views of marriage in the Bible it got me so hot under the collar that I just figured it wasn't worth me reading anymore. I'm usually not one to put down a book because it makes me uncomfortable but that one just did it for me. The way she took the Bible and the words of Paul so out of context had me fuming more than out that book went.
    Ah...well...on to the next.