Saturday, August 15, 2009

Summer Reading: Confronting Demons, Finding God

This week I finished Lamentations by Ken Scholes. Preview chapters and other stories are available on the publisher's website (sign in required, but if you like fantasy/science fiction this is a good site). This is a good read about religious authorities who try to control the flow of information and what happens when power corrupts. It is post-apocalyptic in that this world has already survived disasters, and confronts another one. How do we learn from our mistakes, how do we confront our own demons, what will we kill for, what will we die for, who will we bury: a man who had been Pope, an orphan, a king, and a courtesan are the lead characters who must answer those questions. I stayed up to finish the book and just downloaded some short stories from the author's website. It's the first in a series, and that's good news!

Last summer I "met" Sister Fidelma, the medieval Irish dailaigh/detective/religious woman/sister to a king who is the central character of a mystery series by Peter Tremayne (a pseudonym for Peter Berresford Ellis, a historian). Having zoomed through most of the books available at the time, I was delighted to find Dancing with Demons in the new books section at the library this summer. This particular book is not a "whodunit," but a why did he do it, but of course with a wonderful final denouement. I would recommend starting at the beginning of the series. It's a glimpse into a time in Ireland when women had equal rights and when Celtic Christian spirituality and religious life had not yet become overcome by the Roman church but is still confronted by its Druid past. As a current fan of the Iona Community, I think that Sister Fidelma does a good job at revealing the roots of Celtic Christian practices while providing a good mystery read. If you like the Brother Cadfael mysteries by the author Ellis Peters (pen name of Edith Pargeter) you probably will enjoy Sister Fidelma.

Then, because it's been one of those weeks, I find myself in the middle of reading four other books, depending on where I'm sitting. The first paragraph of Tethered by Amy MacKinnon sets the tone for this mystery about a woman undertaker who believes in death, not life—at least so far:
I plunge my thumb between the folds of the incision, then hook my forefinger deep into her neck. Unlike most of the bloodlines, which offer perfunctory resistance, the carotid artery doesn't surrender itself willingly. Tethered between the heart and head, the sinewy tube is often weighted with years of plaque, thickening its resolve to stay. More so now that rigor mortis has settled deep within the old woman.
The demons that this heroine confronts are her own childhood traumas in the person of the young girl who finds peace and safety playing in the funeral home, and her belief or fear that death is stronger than life and love.

I indulged myself with a trip to my local independent bookstore on Thursday and got Empress: Godspeaker book One by Karen Miller. How does god speak to us: in slavery, in war, in our children, in our friends, in certainty, in love, in pain or in sacrifice? When do demons overcome god's will? What is sin? The heroine has more will to live and to endure than any other fictional or real character I've met recently, and so far, Hekat is certain that she knows god speaks to her and that she is in god's eye. The god in this book is not one whose eye I would want on me necessarily, but it is an engrossing read, nonetheless.

Barbara Brown Taylor faced a number of her own demons in Leaving Church—a book that was hard to read as I am trying to find a church. But she's a great writer, so I picked up her new book, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. She writes about practices for encountering God in everyday life, not necessarily within the walls of the church. I just started reading this and hope to participate in the book group discussion on Monday September 28 at Rev Gal Blog Pals.

Finally, as an antidote to the early August Red Sox slump, I picked up The Faith of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture, edited by Christopher H. Evans and William R. Herzog II. This book of essays discusses baseball as a central part of American civil religion. Although this book was published before the Red Sox broke the curse to win the World Series in 2004, it reveals and captures the religious fervor of baseball fans, a fervor most ministers might wish their congregations shared just in part. It is a fascinating analysis of American culture and how sport influences our religious institutions and vice versa.
(p.217) Commentators who wax poetically about the virtues of baseball will point to what they believe are its intrinsic qualities of greatness—the fact that the game reflects a uniqueness that metaphorically and literally can open our souls to a vision of paradise. Yet, what the accounts of the Dodgers [1956 World Series] and Red Sox [1975 World Series] suggest, and what many of the chapters in this book suggest, is that baseball is just as likely to break our hearts as give us ecstasy. For many who passionately follow a sports team, who play a sport, or who love someone who plays a sport, we are amazed at how difficult it can be to absorb a loss—even with the passing of years that pain still lingers (ask any Red Sox fan about the 1986 World Series). To say "It's only a game" is little solace when we as a culture are so passionate about winning—no matter the context or the cost.
As I am in mid-read and describing these books, it occurs to me that these authors are trying to describe the ways we not only seek meaning, but also redemption. Because, often, in trying to make meaning of events in our lives, we find that we need to make reparations or at least to make things turn out differently, or to find a way to change our experiences of loss and conflict. As summer draws to a close and we begin to gear up for fall and school starting (how odd it is, after five years, not to be thinking of fall classes), perhaps these summer reflections set the stage for a time of t'shuvah—the forty days the Jewish sages set aside for repentance and making things right prior to Yom Kippur.

May these last weeks of summer still offer time for making meaning and making amends, for confronting our fears, finding love and knowing God, catching up with ourselves, our gardens, our friends and family, and for getting back into the lead in the AL East
, or at least into the wild card race.

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