The last post was about a book that combined worldwide nuclear war with faith among the few survivors. It was a bridge of sorts between the 15 books I read about war and the books I read about faith. In this essay, I will discuss seven the books I read in 2016 about faith and religion.
The first book on faith I read this year was the novel Laurus about a Russian healer and mystic. We follow Laurus from his apprenticeship to a healer near the end of his life, through love and loss, to Laurus finding that he is now a healer himself, a greater healer than his mentor. Then the story takes a long and funny detour. Two thousand miles away, the son of an Italian merchant comes to believe he must travel to rural Russia and find this Laurus in order to know when the end of the world will be. The Italian goes to Russia, takes Laurus on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the tale takes even stranger twists from there. Laurus is a great story, and a picture of the harrowing reality of a truly spiritual life.
Which led me to re-read Letters toMalcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by C.S. Lewis. Since I first read Mere Christianity in 1977 in Germany, I have read or re-read at least one of Lewis’ 40 books every year. Reading Laurus made me feel shallower than a pie plate spiritually and Malcolm pointed right at one of my weaknesses.
In the fall I read four books for an ancient Greek language class. They were (1) The Gospel of Mark in Greek in a recent edition, The Gospel of Mark in English in Richmond Lattimore’s translation, and two commentaries by Michel Focant and Mary Ann Beavis. In Greek, the words of Jesus are at once more harsh and more clear than any English translation could convey. Jesus turned down every form of power and riches offered Him. He healed and fed the poor. He publically condemned to rich and powerful.
While I read these unambiguous words, millionaire TV preachers notably James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, Jr. endorsed a candidate who brags of sexual conquest, of having riches, power, and fame, and of having no need of forgiveness—the center of the Christian message. The health and wealth heresy is now mainstream, the public religion of America. But you can’t find a word of that in Gospels.
On Wednesday night, I help out with an English as a Second Language (ESL) ministry at my Church. In one class I asked the students about studying their Holy Books. One of the students was from India, one from Ethiopia, one from Afghanistan. They each said it was strange that in America you could “study” the Bible in translation. In no other religion could someone be considered as studying a Holy Book if they did not know the language of the Book.
I could tell the students the only writer of the New Testament who was a native speaker of Greek was Luke. The other half dozen were GSL (Greek as a Second Language) writers. And all of the words of Jesus were spoken in Aramaic or Hebrew, so even the Greek New Testament is a translation of the His words. By the time you read the words of Jesus in English it has been translated twice: once by the Apostle who heard Jesus speak and translated His words to Greek, then a second time when the Greek was translated to English. I had a co-worker who learned Aramaic before he learned Greek because he wanted to be able to get a sense of what Jesus said in His language.
The last book in the faith group is Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse. This lovely book follows the life of two young men who are novices in a monastery at the beginning of the story. One leaves, one stays but their lives remain intertwined until the prodigal comes home and dies in the arms of his life-long friend. The book really captures the devotion and drive that leads to a life of faith and how that devotion and drive can be turned to art. This book is in many ways unlike Laurus, but alike in the intense, lifelong and sometimes funny spiritual journey of the main character(s).
The next post will be books on politics.