11 September 2011

2 Recent Books

I recently finished reading 2 books I've been working on for a while, Heretics, by G. K. Chesterton and Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. Both are excellent in their own rights. Heretics, being written near the dawn of the 20th century is in public domain and can be found online for free. Spirit of the Disciplines was penned in 1988 but is still available in publication.

Chesterton is one of those authors who I had seen quoted frequently and I appreciated the quotes, so I finally decided to go to the source and read some of his works on their own terms. I was not disappointed. His insight and interpretation of the world around him is forthright and refreshing. It was a bit of a struggle as he wrote Heretics as a response to his contemporaries, many of whom I am unfamiliar with or know only in name, but the main points of his arguments could be followed without much background.

Chesterton's best gift, at least in this book, is his penchant for "calling a spade a spade." He examined the thought of his time period and responded with a loud and unequivocal, "This is garbage!" Unfortunately, many of the trends in thinking and writing that he observed and challenged have proceeded over the intervening century largely unchecked. At several points I felt I was reading a commentary on something I had heard in class the day before.

"But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter." (Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2011). Heretics (Kindle Locations 55-56). Kindle Edition.) This really sums up much of his thought and I heartily agree. We hear such things constantly, but He has none of it. He continues, "I perceive that it is far more practical to begin at the beginning and discuss theories. I see that the men who killed each other about the orthodoxy of the Homoousion were far more sensible than the people who are quarrelling about the Education Act. (Kindle Locations 131-133).

There is much that I highlighted and would love to share, but for sake of space, I will stop there. He has a very good point. What we believe, what we believe about fundamental things--life, love, God, death--these things matter immensely, for out of our fundamental beliefs flow all of our actions and other beliefs. Somehow, we have lost this in our so-called "enlightened" age. It is both a tragedy and a farce. I sit in higher education once again and listen to academicians speak in such ways that reveals their biases while at the same time the claim--and with a straight face--to have none. This, of course, is insanity. One last quote form the end of the book to sum up.

Every man in the street must hold a metaphysical system, and hold it firmly. The possibility is that he may have held it so firmly and so long as to have forgotten all about its existence. This latter situation is certainly possible; in fact, it is the situation of the whole modern world. The modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas. (Kindle Locations 2433-2436).

Okay, onto Willard. Dallas Willard is one of the few living authors I will willingly read. I doubt he'll put that bit of information on his resume anytime soon, but what I mean is, as I have stated in other places, is that much of what is written in contemporary times is either a) garbage or, b) recycled from previous times. Dallas takes the best of the latter and interprets and applies it with very little of the former.

This particular work of his takes some ideas that have been floating in my head for about 20 years and crystalizes them. The bottom line of the book is this--how we live as Christians matters. Not in some moralistic way, but in the very practical and spiritual way that it forms us. Just as Christ is fully God and fully man, we too are fully body and fully spirit. They two co-exist and reside within us. We can do nothing "spiritual" outside of our flesh and blood, and everything we do physically affects us spiritually.

From this obvious, though often overlooked, beginning, he lays out how discipline in the Christian life is necessary in order to train ourselves in righteousness. "Our mistake is to think that following Jesus consists in loving our enemies, going the "second mile," turning the other cheek, suffering patiently and hopefully–while living the rest of our lives just as everyone else does." (p. 5) Too often, this is the case. We go to church and talk about our "spiritual lives" as if they had nothing to do with our Monday through Saturday "real" lives.

"Either I must intend to stop sinning or not intend to stop. There is no third possibility. I must plan to follow Jesus fully or not plan to follow him." (p. 13)

Read that again.

Either I must intend to stop sinning or not intend to stop.
There is no third possibility.
I must plan to follow Jesus fully or not plan to follow him.

We cannot gloss over the way Jesus and his disciples lived their lives. They practiced regular prayer and solitude. They were disciplined in the way they lived their lives. Jesus words key us into this if we listen, "When you pray...when you fast,... when you give..." (Matthew 6) are telling. He does not say, "if," but when. The expectation is that we will do these things.

Unfortunately, through radical interpretations of reformation theology, we have largely discarded spiritual disciplines because we are afraid of "works righteousness." In truth, many of us are just lazy.

The disciplines for the spiritual life, rightly understood, are time-tested activities consciously undertaken by us as new men or women to allow our spirit ever-increasing sway over our embodied selves. They help us by assisting the ways of God's Kingdom to take the place of the habits of sin embedded in our bodies. (p. 86) They are training to be who we want to be. It takes effort on our part. Yes, God gives us the Holy Spirit and works in us and through us, but we must work with him. We cannot sit on the couch eating popcorn and expect to just poof become holier. It does not work that way, and no where in scripture does it tell us it does.

"The mark of disciplined persons is that they are able to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done." (p. 151) We understand this in the purely physical realm. I cannot expect to be able to run a half marathon on the prescribed day if I do not train myself in preparation. So why are we so flabbergasted when we cannot resist a temptation, or speak against falsehood when it comes, if we have not also trained ourselves?

Enough of my rambling. If you haven't read either of these, do yourself a favor and read them.

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