Andrew S · Autobiography · History · Non-Fiction · Religion · SCC eBook

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners | by John Bunyan

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners: Or Brief Faithful Relation Exceeding Mercy God Christ his Poor Servant John

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan
(Penguin Classics, 1987, 160 pages)

I found John Bunyan’s 17th century religious autobiography fascinating for a number of reasons. Here are a couple of them. First and foremost, it is of interest for the way that it biographically parallels the journey of the character Christian in Bunyan’s famous work of allegorical fiction The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan’s own conversion and struggle for a sense of security in salvation are articulated in language that, at points (as helpfully pointed out by the editor), is used almost verbatim to describe characters and scenes in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Second, Bunyan’s account gives a window into the tumultuous religious climate of early modern England. As a “dissenting” preacher – a Christian minister who worked outside the structure of the Church of England – Bunyan was imprisoned by the government for years at a time. These stakes help to make sense of the agonizing that accompanies the long process of Bunyan’s conversion.

Andrew S · Poetry · Religion · SCC eBook

Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman | edited by Kevin J. Gardner

Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman

Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman: An Anthology of Betjeman’s Religious Verse
by John Betjeman; edited by Kevin J. Gardner
(Continuum, 2005, 224 pages)

John Betjeman was appointed the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1972. Betjeman was a practicing Anglican, and much of his poetry deals with his faith and his struggle to retain it. This anthology gathers together poems which reflect on the themes of God, death, belief, and national heritage. Betjeman’s faith is alternatively robust and wavering, and these struggles are consistently related to the Church of England and its place within English society. While Betjeman has much to say about the personal elements of religious belief, he is most concerned with the way that the faith functions within the broader society and the role that it plays in national identity.

I got interested in Betjeman after reading some of Philip Larkin’s essays and rereading his poetry. Larkin and Betjeman were contemporaries, and while Larkin had little time for most modern poets, he always maintained an affection for Betjeman. Both Betjeman’s and Larkin’s poetry is accessible when compared to most modern poets. Many of the poems in this volume are comical and written as light verse. This helps to make the collection accessible, as do the helpful introductions to each section by the editor Kevin J. Gardner. This is a great read for poetry lovers and anglophiles.

Andrew S · Classic · Fiction · Juvenile · SCC eBook

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz | by L. Frank Baum

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 100th Anniversary Edition by L. Frank Baum
(HarperCollins, 2000, 272 pages)

I’ve been reading this one to my daughter in the evenings before bed. She loved the story so much that by the last few nights she was asking is she could get ready for bed early so we could read. It was awfully fun to read, and I think we’ll continue reading through some more of the Oz series for a while.

In the original introduction, Baum notes that traditional fairy tales, like those from Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, often include terrifying and bloody incidents that were meant to teach a severe moral lesson. Baum disapproves of this approach, and he says that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz “aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” The success of the books in his own day testifies to the fact that Baum succeeded in this aspiration, and over one hundred years later, the books still offer “wonderment and joy.”

I love the way that Baum combines traditional fairy tale elements – witches (good and bad), talking animals, magical talismans – with turn of the century American ingenuity. The Wizard isn’t really a wizard, of course, but a resourceful old circus performer from Omaha who finally leaves Oz by making his own hot air balloon. Though he isn’t actually a wizard, he is wise enough to know how to “grant” brains to the Scarecrow, a heart to the Tin Woodman, and courage to the Cowardly Lion. This is not a matter of magic, but of making each of the friends believe in the abilities he already possesses. In addition to simply being a fun story, this classic is a fascinating example of an American appropriation of the European storytelling tradition.

Andrew S · Classic · Fiction · Holiday · Quick Read! · SCC eBook

A Christmas Carol | by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
(Everyman’s Library, 1994, 180 pages)

This holiday classic needs no introduction, summary, or recommendation. It has come to define how we experience and celebrate the Christmas season, and I think its parable of redemption and charity make us all better people for being invariably shaped by its themes.

This particular edition has the added benefit of classic illustrations by Arthur Rackham, who also provided illustrations for such classics as Gulliver’s Travels, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and many more. Rackham’s combination of color and black and white depictions of the novel’s high points enhance the reading experience immeasurably. Marley’s ghost is properly ghoulish, the Cratchit’s are skinny yet cheerful, and Scrooge’s cantankerousness and cruelty is manifested in his twisted appearance.

There is probably no better commentary on the story as a whole than the brief Preface that Dickens included with the original edition of the novel in 1843:

“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book to raise the Ghost of an Idea which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their house pleasantly and no one wish to lay it.”

A few hours spent with this classic will pleasantly haunt your holiday season indeed.

Andrew S · Biography · Non-Fiction · Religion · SCC eBook

Newman’s Unquiet Grave | by John Cornwell

Newman's Unquiet Grave

Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint by John Cornwell
(Continuum, 2010, 288 pages)

John Henry Newman was beatified on September 19, 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI. In 2008, as part of the beatification process, his body was exhumed from its grave at the Birmingham Oratory where he spent the years following his controversial conversion from Anglicanism to the Catholic Church. However, when the grave was examined, his body was gone. Some took this as a sure sign of his sainthood; John Cornwell (and most others quite frankly) believes that it was simply a matter of natural decomposition. Whatever the reason for the body’s disappearance, its exhumation and a renewed interest in the circumstances surrounding his burial provoked the kind of controversy that Newman must have become accustomed to during the course of his life.

In Newman’s Unquiet Grave John Cornwell takes the turmoil surrounding Newman’s exhumation and beatification process as a starting point to investigate his tumultuous career as an important nineteenth century ecclesiastical figure and man of letters. In this respect, the book’s title is potentially misleading. While Cornwell prefaces and closes his book with some reporting of the recent controversies over Newman’s legacy, the bulk of the work is a biographical study focusing on Newman’s writings. Cornwell seemed to give the impression that he would be arguing against the propriety of Newman’s beatification, stating early in the book that “In [Newman’s] own view, his literary vocation would disqualify him from the sainthood” (10). However, the question of whether or not Newman should qualify for ultimate canonization is not the major concern of the rest of the book. Instead, it is a sympathetic portrait of a literary genius who’s “unrelenting literary obsession was the story of his own life: he was the ultimate, self-absorbed autobiographer” (12). Cornwell uses the term “self-absorbed” in a benign way, and his account of Newman’s ongoing interpretation of his own religious and intellectual development offers very helpful and knowledgeable insight into one of the most important figures of the nineteenth century’s intellectual landscape.

As a fellow at Oriel College, Oxford, and the Vicar of St Mary’s, Oxford’s university church, Newman was at the center of academic life at Oxford. He was the major figure of the catholic revival in the Church of England, known as the Oxford Movement. When he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845, he had to give up his position at Oxford and was ostracized from many of his friends. Years later, he would write his Apologia Pro Vita Sua to give an account of his religious development. His other important works include An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which offers a rationale for the continuing evolution of Catholic doctrine, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, arguing that certainty in religious beliefs is arrived at through a complex process involving far more than bare intellect, and The Idea of a University, setting out a vision for university education which is grounded in religious beliefs but insistent on academic freedom. Cornwell discusses these and other works in significant depth. In addition to shedding light on the British ecclesiastical and political context that gave shape to these works, Cornwell does an excellent job of drawing out the significance of Newman’s legacy for current issues regarding religious doctrine, university education, and the relationship between church and state.