Tag Archives: Christianity

Imagining the Kingdom

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship WorksImagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James K.A. Smith

[I]f the gospel is going to capture imaginations and sanctify perception we need painters and novelists and dancers and songwriters and sculptors and poets and designers whose creative work shows the world otherwise, enabling us to imagine differently—and hence perceive differently and so act differently. (163)

Growing up I was often confused and conflicted about worship, and I was very nearly an early casualty of the “church music wars.” Choruses came into my life in a big way when I was young, and though they left me frustrated and uneasy, it seemed equally useless to argue for hymns. Arguing about music seemed pointless because both sides were beginning from differing premises. Worship was either a commodity to consume or a means of didactic instruction: was there better theology in the hymns or greater emotional (and thus “spiritual”) resonance in the choruses?

Choruses or hymns—either way, it was still all about me. I remember feeling a hunger for worship—for something—that pushed me out of the spotlight and yet still did something fundamental to me that wasn’t just the addition of a certain feeling or information. I had lots of conversations with youth leaders trying to help me sort this out. (And it was patient mentors who kept me searching for answers within the Church, who made it clear that my questions were okay and that Christianity was big enough for me to find my answers within.) They explained that some people connected more emotionally and others connected more intellectually and that I just needed to find the right means of connection for me.

Part of me still agrees with this to some extent. I am an epistemological post-modernist: I hold that there are multiple ways of searching for and engaging with truth. I know enough of the history of human thought to recognize the validity of such a claim. But at the same time I felt (and continue to feel) there is something objectively lacking in much contemporary evangelical worship and that simply saying some people are too “intellectual” for worshipping that way doesn’t really work. Moreover, I think some of our forms of worship are doing active harm to those who practice them.

This is where James K. A. Smith’s second volume of his Cultural Liturgies series, entitled Imagining the Kingdom, becomes so incredibly helpful—for those who can wade through the philosophical apparatus Smith constructs to make what seem like largely intuitive points. Smith examines the importance of forms of worship. Worship, he believes, is missional—it’s a call to action. But, as he spends most of the book explaining, the mistake most evangelical Christians make is assuming that humans are rational actors, that we act primarily on the knowledge that we have. If this is the case, then experiencing Christianity would be absorbing knowledge through hymns, sermons, Sunday School, etc. But this is not the case. Instead, worship, according to Smith, should be the education of our imaginations.

[P]erhaps the mind of Christ is also something that is acquired through practice and formation, something that emerges as a result of sanctification rather than an informational deposit. (114)

Smith marshals a host of psychologists and philosophers to argue for a philosophy of action based on something deeper than intellect, based on our “embodied knowledge” and habitus. He discusses this in a few different ways, but his argument at the core is one I think most would agree upon: that our cultural forms predispose our perceptions on a largely unconscious level and that every day we act on these assumptions prior to conscious thought. These “lenses” or “frameworks” (and Smith has to bracket a lot of his expressions in scare quotes throughout the work) Smith argues are shaped in two primary and related ways: through “embodied knowledge” and through narrative. The first is based on the fact that our bodies learn over and above our minds huge amounts of social and cultural cues that unconsciously effect our actions. He uses the example of learning to properly hold a fork or eat at the table. That physical habits embodies a whole spectrum of cultural and social knowledge that we learn by “feel” rather than intellect.

I “think about” the world second; first I’m engaged in it as an actor whose motivations and ends are practical and largely “unconscious.” It is habitus that is “the basis of perception” and all subsequent experiences. Indeed, in some significant sense, experience is only possible because of habitus. (83)

In regards to narrative, Smith argues that the stories were are taught (and the stories we embody) also inform our actions prior to conscious thought. The panhandler on the street, for instance: our initial, unthinking response is shaped by whether we have imbibed a narrative of personal responsibility and American opportunity or a narrative about generosity and the value of all as children of God. That narrative shapes our perceptions themselves, not simply how we chose to act on those perceptions. It is narrative that trains our emotional perceptual apparatus to perceive the world as meaningful. (108) Narrative is the unconscious framework structuring our perceptions prior to though. Story is the lingua franca of incarnate significance. (160)

[W]e have too often pursued flawed models of discipleship and Christian formation that have focused on convincing the intellect rather than recruiting the imagination. Moreover, because of this neglect and our stunted anthropology, we have failed to recognize the degree and extent to which secular liturgies [consumerism, nationalism, egoisms] do implicitly capitalize on our embodied penchant for storied formation. (39)

If all that is the case (and much of the density of this book comes from Smith meticulously building up this case in a rigorous fashion that unfortunately makes it largely inaccessible to the audience I think he’s aiming for) Smith argues that the role of worship is to shape our habitus, to form our embodied knowledge and structure our narrative—not simply by giving us knowledge but rather by having us participate in physical practices that form our perceptions on a deeper level than intellect. Worship shapes the imagination. That means that the forms of worship themselves, especially our physical postures, are important. They are not (and this is critical for Smith) neutral “containers” that can be whatever form (traditional or contemporary) needed to most effectively carry the important stuff, the content. No, the forms themselves embody and articulate perception and postures and aesthetic awareness that shape the worshippers.

[I]f we aim to form Christian actors and agents of renewal, then dispositional deflection requires sanctifying perception—for it is our bodily comportment (praktognosia) that constitutes the world in which we are called and moved to act. To shape perception is to transform action because we transform the “world” in which we find ourselves. . . . We need nothing less than a Christian imagination. (157)

This is where Smith’s argument finds its teeth, but unfortunately it comes very late in the treatise. And, just as most readers will likely agree with Smith’s emphasis on the importance of non-intellectual factors to shape perception, I think many readers would follow Smith here as well. We all knew this on some level, once upon a time. We were taught that you dressed a certain way on Sundays and that you behaved in a certain way in the sanctuary. You spoke in a certain tone. You didn’t run in church. We learned the rubric of reverence before we had the intellectual tools to understand it, and by so doing we understood certain things about our relationship with God on a deeper level than conscious thought. Yet somewhere along the line that embodied knowledge, that habitus, was thrown out because it was seen as legalistic, as divorced from the important stuff: the knowledge about Christ, which could just as easily (and perhaps more “effectively”) be delivered by a preacher wearing jeans and flip-flops.

But Smith’s point is that we have indeed lost something, that the forms are not neutral. I wish he would have gone into more detail here, as this is I think where his argument finds its application and could be a prophetic voice for the larger evangelical church today. He gives basically one example, which again is familiar to most of us, the idea of the consumerist form of worship being considered a neutral package in which to deliver knowledge of Christ but actually and unconsciously forming us to view Christ as simply another commodity to be consumed. I could add my own example from my own experience: the form of worship as emotivist appeal, training us to think of worship as both a form of performance and entertainment and shaping us to view our narrative with Christ through individualist, emotivist lenses.

Wide swaths of contemporary Christianity have bought into a specious form/content distinction: we have assumed that Christianity is primarily a “message” and is thus defined by a “content” that is distillable from historical forms. Along with this distinction comes the assumption that forms are basically just neutral containers for the message, selected on the basis of taste, preference, or cultural relevance. . . .[W]e begin to approach Christian worship as an event for disseminating the message and thus look for forms that will be fresh, attractive, relevant, accessible, and so on.
. . .[S]uch strategies are inherently “intellectualist,” both because they reduce the gospel to a (propositional) “message” and (because of that) completely miss the formative power of the forms themselves. Because such “relevant” paradigms are unwittingly intellectualist, they fail to appreciate that we are liturgical animals shaped by practices that work on our cognitive unconscious. And so they also fail to appreciate that these forms are not neutral; the forms of the mall or coffee shop are not just benign containers that can carry any content. These forms are already “aimed and loaded”: they carry their own teleological orientation and come loaded with a complex of rituals and practices that carry a vision of the good life. So while we might think that reconfiguring worship to feel like the mall is a way of making Jesus relevant and accessible, in fact we are unwittingly teaching worshipers and seekers to treat Jesus like any other commodity they encounter in the mall, because the very form of the mall’s (“secular”) liturgy unconsciously trains us to relate to the world as consumers.
(168-9)

I think Smith is largely correct in his evaluation, but I wish his treatment would have been one that was aimed for a more popular than academic audience. Most Christian thinkers who make it through this book would agree with Smith, but most worship leaders who really need to grapple with the concepts he’s laying out would likely be turned off by the length to which he goes to make them academically rigorous. The appeal to the forms of worship here and their urgency for the Church is real, but it gets rather lost (ironically) in a thicket of intellectual discourse, despite James’s valiant attempts to connect the concepts throughout with examples from contemporary poetry, literature, and film.

With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God

With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to GodWith: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God by Skye Jethani

I don’t often read contemporary devotional books. The market seems a roar of shallow, consumerist noise, and I don’t know enough about contemporary Protestant popular theology to know who is speaking well. But occasionally a book will fall into my hands, and I would like to believe that sometimes the books you get by happenstance are the books you are meant to read. Skye Jethani has spoken on my university campus in the past, and copies of his book were given to some of the faculty. Which is how (after it sat on my shelf for about six months) I found myself reading With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God.

In this book, Skye takes an important look at a set of four contemporary heresies regarding how we understand our relationship with God in Christian practice today, and he packages them in a very clever (and effective) metaphor built around the prepositions over, under, from, and for. He never uses the term heresy, but that’s what he’s discussing: four postures that we take regarding God and that twist, undermine, or corrupt what our relationship with God really should look like. I found the analysis and critiques of these four postures to be the most helpful and insightful portion of the book, as we all live into different aspects of these in our own lives to some extent. In this respect, the book was good for some sharp self-reflection.

Skye summarizes the four positions as these:

Life under God: seeing God as an arbitrator of certain moral guidelines that we must follow to be rewarded with salvation. We are sinners, and our relationship with God is about satisfying these rules and obligations.

Life over God: related to our approach to scripture or the natural world from a perceived position of power or knowledge. In either case, there are certain God-ordained principles (for obtaining wealth, happiness, influence, or security), and we must find and apply to life.

Life from God: seeing God as there to supply my needs and desires as a consumer. My relationship with God is a posture of approaching God for what the divine can provide me with.

Life for God: the mission that God gave me is central, and I evaluate myself and my relationship with God in terms of how well I am fulfilling or accomplishing that mission.

As Skye points out, there are aspects of truth in each of these postures, which is what makes them dangerous. When taken too far, they subvert a proper understanding, a right orientation, with God. All of them put the emphasis on things beside God; they all use God as a means to address what Skye calls the basic aim of religion, trying to address our fears and insecurities with a source of power. Against these four, Skye argues for an orientation that is centered on life with God.

And here’s where the book begins to get fuzzier. It’s easier to explain what things like God and our relationship with God are not (as Skye does in the insightful first portion of the book) than it is to say what they are. It’s easier to diagnose heterodoxy than define orthodoxy. This is the apophatic tradition: the ability to say what God is not but the inability to define God’s essence. The portions of the book where Skye tries to really examine what life with God looks like, taking a chapter each on the qualities of life with God—faith, hope, and love—fell a bit flat to me. They were gesturing toward something beyond a system of information that could be passed along in a text. They were pointing beyond the text itself.

But Skye got there in the end, in the very end. In the appendix, actually. I think maybe the paradox of any book about spirituality is that the truths it is trying to communicate can only be experienced beyond the book, in the context of practice and community. For Skye, the centerpiece of life lived with God, in communion and relationship, is a life with regular periods of quiet contemplation. He hit on this tangentially in examining the motivation for lives of love in some examples of contemporary saints, but he spelled it out more explicitly in the appendix, where he outlined three types of contemplative prayer.

The paradox of the book I think can be summed up in this: in the first half I can understand intellectually what’s wrong with the four heterodox postures Skye so convincingly discusses, but in the second half I can only experience the rightness of life with God through practices and prayers that the book itself (or really any book) cannot contain.

Kindling the Divine Spark

Kindling the Divine Spark: Teachings on How to Preserve Spiritual ZealKindling the Divine Spark: Teachings on How to Preserve Spiritual Zeal by Abbot Herman

Only the benumbed soul doesn’t pray. Preserve in yourselves the feeling of need, and you will always have stimulation for prayer . . . Necessity teaches everything. The need for prayer teaches one to pray. (70)

Of all the aspects of the Christian faith, monasticism (either of the male or female variety) may be the most misunderstood. Yet I would venture to say that the health of a church, the help and the hope of the faith, depends on the strength of its monastic communities. A friend has said that in the history of the church, renewal has often come from the monasteries. They’re like the spiritual batteries by which the church occasionally must be recharged.

But contemporary misunderstandings arise because we don’t see what such communities are actually for, what they’re supposed to be doing, how they influence or interact with the “normal” life of the church in the rest of the world. They’re not practical. They’re antiquated. They’re disconnected. What have poverty, chastity, and continual prayer to do with marriage, children, career, or even evangelism?

St. Theophan the Recluse was a bishop in nineteenth-century Russia who had a passion for starting monasteries and convents, and he gave regular sermons at these various communities in which he spelled out for their members the goal of lives as monks and nuns. Many of these sermons, along with some brief biographical sketches, are collected in this volume, Kindling the Divine Spark: Teachings on How to Preserve Spiritual Zeal. There is a gap of culture and of a century or so, so while reading it’s easy to slip into an analysis of this work as an authoritarian bishop working to keep communities of women (nuns) under his influence. Except for the fact that Theophan ultimately abandoned his position to spend decades as a recluse, living out the life of austere monasticism that he had preached.

Besides being a living testimony to the spiritual heritage of Christianity across the world and throughout history, the power of monasticism, as illustrated in these sermons, is the example it provides for us in the world. Every Christian is called into the same struggle, and monasticism reminds us of the cost that we might otherwise be able to forget: that Christianity is not a system of knowledge or principles but a life lived out in community with the goal of perfection, of sanctifying individuals into the likeness of Christ.

Peace and tranquility and fulfillment are either the crown of perfection or a state of extreme fall, in which all spiritual striving and needs are extinguished . . . The state of those who are progressing toward perfection, however, is a state of struggle—intense, laborious, and full of tribulation. This state of progressing—is the narrow path. (40)

Of Theophan’s sermons, I thought “The Healing Pool” (Chapter 18) was the most profound. It talked about the paradox of considering oneself as the least, most humble, most struggling Christian and how this disposes the soul to be a source of help and healing for others. Advancing in the spiritual life, according to Theophan, does not make one more confident or sure of one’s self but rather more aware of one’s weakness and one’s innate and continual need for God. If the Christian life is one of resisting or overcoming the passions, Theophan argues, the more we understand ourselves and are aware of these passions, the more the struggle grows. We cannot resist passions of which we are not even aware.

What to take from all this into a life outside the monastery? The awareness of Christianity as a struggle—not a thrown switch or single-time salvation experience—is paradoxically a source of encouragement. When will I finally arrive at grace? When will I be delivered from the struggle against my own selfish, awkward, grasping nature? Theophan says: never. At least, not here. This is the testimony of monasticism, that sanctity is a process, and a process that grows more difficult as one progresses.

This had profound implications for prayer, the awareness that it is driven by necessity. We cannot manufacture a desire to pray, but we pray out of need. The more awake and aware we are of our need—and the more we open our hearts to the needs of others—the more we find within us the desire to pray.

Isn’t this view of salvation rather discouraging though? I mean, all this talk of struggle. How could that invite anyone to follow after Christ? And what good would it do? Here’s where empiricism comes into play, the testimony of experience and the test of Theophan’s claims: what kind of people are those from whom you find grace, healing, and encouragement? Who are those through whom real good is done? In the world, we go after those with confidence and firm leadership, often to our enduring disappointment and chagrin. But the saints of the church are those who embody the struggle: their humility and self-emptying, all of the things they give up or walk away from, their self-denial—all of this becomes a means of healing for those around them.

And then we’re back at Christ, the exemplar of the whole Christian life, who gave himself up in humility, who made himself the least of all—not simply (or even) to propitiate some kind of cosmic justice but to show that the nature of God himself, that the hidden secret at the heart of the universe, was this kind of love. And it was a struggle, even for him. (Read the account of the garden of Gethsemane.) So the monk or the nun (or the Christian) follows this example, and the struggle is not one of despair but of hope, because the testimony of Christ reveals the ultimate outcome of such a life of self-emptying love: union with God.

In this context, the sermons of Theophan take on a deeper significance than simply exhortations to men and women over a century ago who were participating in a practice of Christianity that no longer has any bearing on the contemporary world. His words, while still difficult, are for all of those who have taken up the struggle of living out the Christian faith.

Good Boy, Achilles!

Good Boy, Achilles!Good Boy, Achilles! by Eddie Ellis

Darwinian evolution did something to theology. Suddenly it became much less straightforward to see humanity as the center of the created order. Man was not the apex of creation but rather a species that happened to have had a series of successful random adaptations. More importantly, perhaps, nature red in tooth and claw put to the question the idea of humans as somehow mediating between God and the world in a chain of being where the higher animals were below us (and in our care) and the angels above.

On the other hand, it’s still pretty clear that humans play a role in the natural order, perhaps even a central role—even when seen in a purely materialistic context. We tilt the world toward change through our actions or inactions. (Climate change offers just one example of this.) More than broad ecological effects though, we have physically transformed certain species through the millennia-long experiments of domestication. Even if the rest of the animal kingdom could care less about humans, we in a very real way have some kind of role or responsibility to discharge vis a vis our dogs and cats, cattle, horses, and fowl. All these species are to some extent our own creation and have helped make human society possible. Dogs, for instance, have in some contexts and with a great deal of truth been claimed as our greatest and most enduring invention.

But which way does this responsibility go? Could it in some respects be reciprocal?

Theologically, you could respond to the idea of a unique relationship between humans and at least certain portions of the natural world (domesticated species, for instance) in a couple ways, specifically in light of humanity’s painfully evident inability to properly steward and protect these creatures (as well as ourselves). Classically, this fact is referred to in Christian theology as the Fall or as humanity’s fallen nature.

You could take the stance that this brokenness extends to the rest of the physical world as well as to humanity itself (St. Paul’s expression about the entire creation groaning). A theological view of animals in this case might hold that whatever redemption they have or need is mediated through mankind. C. S. Lewis comments on this somewhere when he responds to a question about animals in heaven by saying something like it is the role of humanity to mediate between God and nature and restore creation—that whatever kind of relationship animals might have with a Creator, it is through their relationship with man.

If that seems to anthropocentric, another theological tact might be that the rest of the world is still pure and unspoiled and that it was only man that went wrong, that this taint doesn’t extend beyond humans. Lewis again provides an example of something like this in his Space Trilogy, where only the planet Earth (the “silent planet”) has been occupied by the Enemy, and the creatures and animals on other planets in the solar system live in harmony with each other and their creator. A theological view of this might claim that animals still have an unobstructed relationship with God and that the responsibility of care might run the other direction— that they might be charged with helping to deliver us.

Now if all this seems like a lot of theological throat-clearing for a review of a slim book about puppies written for kids, I would point out that the author of said book has a Master’s in theology and PhD in religious studies, as well as a clear theological message to communicate in his writing. In the fictional universe Ellis creates (centered around a boy named Jeremy who lives on a farm with his parents and their dog Ginger, who has just given birth to a litter of puppies), it is the dogs who still have a clear point of contact and communion with their Creator and who are charged with the care and stewarding of their humans. Humans are muddled. Not only do they not smell and hear as well as their canine caretakers, they don’t have the inborn instincts and understanding that dogs are born with in Ellis’s book. The puppies and their mother know the voice of God and even occasionally interact with His messengers, but it’s not apparent whether this ability extends to the other animals on the farm or the wild animals (primarily raccoons) that occasionally make a nuisance of themselves.

That last line was not offered facetiously, as this would have been an interesting wrinkle to explore in the work. If dogs are innately “good”, does this extend to other animals that classically represent domestication and companionship? And are wild animals (like wolves, for instance) distinguished by their inability to hear or heed the voice of the Maker? Questions like these, and the potential conflicts that might arise, would have been interesting things to explore in a work that otherwise is a very straightforward tale about a boy who wants a puppy.

Ellis is writing for children, so he keeps the narrative focused and simple. Jeremy wants one of the puppies, named Thunder, for his own, though his parents have explained that they’re giving away all the puppies because they cannot afford them. Jeremy’s universe is as tight and tidy as the narrative itself: a halcyon farm where his dad takes him fishing and his mom makes cornbread and engages in the occasional snowball fight, a world complete with faithful family friends, church, and a cozy barn with a litter of puppies. We don’t see any conflict or fracturing of this idyllic scene; all Jeremy can see is a puppy that his parents have denied him.

Tension builds throughout the book as one by one the other puppies are taken away and Thunder learns what it means to care for and protect his human, from whom he ultimately receives his true name. Ellis’s voice and descriptive prose is solid, as you would expect from someone accustomed to academic writing. His tone is never dry or awkward, and he spins out the warm, domestic scenes with ease. The book slides along toward its inevitable conclusion until a final departure in which Jeremy, with very little warning, takes matters into his own hands with all the simple and unfathomable logic of a child. It is in this final crisis that Thunder (in what feels like a riff on a classic Lassie episode) proves himself to be Jeremy’s dog and saves both the boy and their future together. (Strangely, for all the attention that Ellis pays throughout the novel in passing along wisdom about God, patience, and obedience through the parents to the son, there is no final discussion or consequence related to Jeremy’s final, reckless gambit.)

It’s difficult for me to offer a perspective on how this book would read for a young child except to say this: I think kids like complexity. I think they can handle a lot more ambiguity than we normally give them credit for. Good Boy, Achilles seems to harken back to a time when children’s book were much more straightforward and black and white: a boy and his dog, obedience and trust. But even a book like that needs some wrinkles. In the straightforward world that Ellis creates, I kept finding myself looking for the complexities, perhaps some along the lines of what I outlined above. In some respects this book might fit a niche similar to Charlotte’s Web, but Charlotte’s Web had a cast including not only a pig and a spider but also geese, a rat, and entire barnyard ensemble. Ginger’s puppies have ended up in a variety of homes by the end of the story. If Ellis follows their various adventures, I hope we learn more about what it means to serve and follow (or question) the Wounded One (the dogs’ name for Christ) in other, varied setting with a broader cast of characters.

Mysterion

Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian FaithMysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith by Donald S. Crankshaw

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was interviewing for a place in the graduate program for the history and philosophy of science at Notre Dame, there was a dinner attended by prospective students and a few professors. We had all gone through the interviews and met several of the faculty, and one of the senior professors at the meal that night asked if we had any remaining questions. I had one: I wanted to know about the relationship between the program and the university’s Catholic identity. “What does it mean,” I asked, “that this program is at a Catholic school?”

The professor seemed to appreciate the question. He paused for a minute, and then he gave what I thought was a great response. He said something like, “It means that we take religion seriously. It means we don’t discount it as a significant factor in history.” It did not mean that everyone I took a class from would be a Catholic or a Christian, and it did not mean that Christianity would be the dominant theme in every (or even very many) lecture. (Though it did mean there would be a crucifix hiding somewhere in every room.) But I appreciated his answer, and I thought it largely accurate.

Mysterion is a new anthology of science fiction and fantasy (featuring one of my stories) that takes a similar approach to Christianity. It is not a collection of stories by Christian authors, nor is it a collection of what I would consider “Christian fiction” (fiction written from a Christian perspective with the intention of inspiring or instructing or converting).

Rather, Mysterion is a collection of stories that take religion seriously as a feature of the world in which the fiction lives. The editors, as they explain in their introduction, recognize that Christianity is a big, messy, dynamic, fruitful thing, and one that, as the title of the anthology suggests, still harbors a multitude of mysteries. Rather than tidy, systematic modes of thought or practice, this anthology suggests (and I think the editors were trying to show) that Christianity—as a living, ancient tradition—can be a starting point for good fiction, and likewise good fiction can be an effective lens for examining and even questioning such a tradition.

If the common thread in each of these stories is some form of serious engagement with Christianity, this still leaves for an incredibly broad sweep of approaches, from the brutal (James Beamon’s “A Lack of Charity”) and the grim (Mike Baretta’s “The Physics of Faith”) to the straightforwardly inspirational (Laurel Amberdine’s “Ascension”) or the subtly powerful and historical grounded (Sarah Ellen Rogers’ “Horologium”). The pieces in here represent everything from hard science fiction to humorous fantasy to surrealist and (I’m excluding my own, though you can read a nice review of it here) are for the most part strong and stirring, asking deep questions and sounding some interesting depths.

Whether or not your own background or perspective is informed by the Christian faith, if you’re a fan of the likes of Lewis and Tolkien, some of these themes will be familiar. If you’ve ventured in the deeper waters of Swanwick, Wolfe, or Lafferty, you may have a few additional signposts for this voyage. But the stories stand on their own, regardless of the context of faith. None of them need a grounding in Christianity to work, in other words. For these stories, with the exception of one or two, the faith angle is not the only angle.

The anthology is lovely as a book as well. The volume is solid, weighty, and impeccably edited. I didn’t catch a single typo on my read-through. There’s a helpful short bio for each author in case you’re interested in searching out more of their work, as well as a thoughtful introduction by the editors. The cover art doesn’t seem to correlate with any specific story but rather with an overall aspect of the theme: narrow is the doorway and rough is the path that leads Elsewhere. (Look closely at the rune on the top of that doorway.)

I won’t go through each of the stories, as that would obviously spoil some of the fun of diving into them yourself, but I will offer some highlights. The volume opens with a strong piece by Daniel Southwell entitled “The Monastic,” about a religious hermit on an island in the midst of Lake Superior and of some of the ancient things that still linger there. “Forlorn,” by Bret Carter is a great ghost story with a unique telling that builds toward a satisfying twist.

“Golgotha” by David Tallerman, along with “This Far Gethsemane” by G. Scott Huggins, may have been my two favorite pieces in the volume. “Golgotha” tells the story of an earnest missionary’s encounter with a pagan deity who is more than witchcraft and rumors. It is told in the language of the day with a voice of a sympathetic narrator who provides a balance between the puritanical rigidity of the missionary and the stark reality of what he encounters. And it asks an interesting question about the cost of proselytizing, about what things are lost and what are gained with Christianity and civilization, but from a perspective other than simple post-colonialism. Rather, what if it’s the old god himself asking these questions?

“This Far Gethsemane” reminded me the most of any story in this volume of golden-age science fiction with the trope of introducing a new species and then using it to explore interesting questions about our own. In this case, the trope is pulled off expertly as Huggins tells the story of a human grad student horrified to find that missionaries have already arrived at the planet where she is doing her studies and moreover that some of the local lifeforms have accepted this religion. Even worse, some of them are willing to take the tenants of Christianity to their logical conclusion, even when it flies in the face of their own biology.

There were several good pieces here, and I could easily add to this list F. R. Michaels’ whimsically disturbing “Cutio,” Rachael K. Jones’ haunting “St. Roomba’s Gospel” (a reprint of a story first published in Diabolical Plots), Joanna Michal Hoyt’s timely historical piece “Cracked Reflections” and two I’ve already mentioned, the grimly apocalyptic (and effective) “The Physics of Faith” by Mike Barretta, which would have left a dusty taste in the mouth of one finishing the volume if it weren’t the lovely “Horologium” by Sarah Ellen Rodgers, which was an excellent piece to finish on, leaving one pondering the mystical and historical roots of devotion as well as its costs.

Mysterion is a collection of stories that take Christianity seriously, and as such explores the implications (and not simply the positive implications) of the faith. Whether or not that aspect of the anthology is compelling to you, the stories succeed in showcasing a variety of voices and offering a satisfying read. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, one for your local library, one for your pastor, and one for all your friends.

Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius

Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius: The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia's Unknown da VinciPavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius: The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia’s Unknown da Vinci by Avril Pyman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We seem to have a fascination with imagining the end of society. We like to talk as if we’re at the end of an era, the twilight of Western civilization or something similar. This appears in our rhetoric, but it also appears in the glut of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies and books of late. I often find myself wondering if the Byzantines felt the same way in the late 1300s, or the early Britons in the face of the Norman invasions, or anyone at all during the long twilight of Rome.

The truth seems to be that society goes through transitions– some quite painfully abrupt and others so gradual as to be unapparent until years or centuries later. For Christians, ideas about these collapses or transitions often take the form of fantasies of persecution or monastic retreat. We wonder what the Church might look like, how it would endure or be transformed, in such transitions. Ironically though, we forget that we have examples from the recent past of what the Church looks like when society collapses or transforms abruptly beyond recognition. Besides the more relevant example of Christianity in the Middle East today, we have the story of the Orthodox Church in Russia. It’s a story that I still don’t know all the details of, the collapse of an old order and the transition from one form of civilized society to another very different. What did the Bolshevik Revolution mean for the practicing faithful and for the institutional Church itself?

Pyman’s book doesn’t answer all these questions. In fact, it assumes the reader already has the context in which to situate the story she’s telling: that of the life of Pavel Florensky (1882 – 1937), a Russian scientist and intellectual, a father, a priest, and ultimately a declared enemy of the Soviet state. This was one of my primary frustrations with the book: I was dropped into a narrative that I still don’t have enough bearings to navigate. Pyman discusses Florensky’s early work in a plethora of Russian names I don’t know, and when the drama of the cataclysmic revolution that would have such an effect on the Church and Florensky’s life within it take place, again the reader is assumed to already understand the contexts of the events being alluded to. It’s difficult to understand the nature of Florensky’s role and reactions to these transformations if, for instance, you don’t already have a grasp on the role the Church played with respect to the government under the last Tsar and a basic knowledge of its hierarchical structure. All this knowledge is assumed. Indeed, not having much of the context of late Tsarist and early Soviet Russia made Florensky’s eventual brushes with the Soviet authorities seem to me perhaps as arbitrary and obscure as they must have to the new Soviet citizens who found themselves in a wash of acronyms, bureaus, committees, and police services that seemingly sprang up overnight.

But Pyman is not writing a book about social transformation or the plight of the Church after the revolution as it found itself in an increasingly and militaristically atheistic society. (If someone could recommend such a book, I would be interested.) Rather, Pyman’s book is about a man, Pavel Florensky, who came to age in the flourishing of the pre-revolutionary intellectual and literary scene and shocked many of his avant-garde social circle by coming to faith and ultimately joining the Church, an organization thought to embody many of the oppressive, traditionalist forces the young guard were rallying against. His first major work, The Ground and Pillar of Faith, which I have not read, is an intellectual apology for faith (something along the lines of a Russian Mere Christianity) lived in the life of the Orthodox Church and still influential today.

Florensky was also recognized and highly regarded as a scientist, and when the theological schools at which he taught were closed after the Soviets came to power, he worked and published extensively as an electrical researcher on behalf of the state. He ultimately lost his parish and in many ways his priestly vocation, but he famously retained his beard and cassock working and lecturing on science in an increasingly hostile environment. His life is the story of intense learning and service, but also of a rear-guard action, a long defeat, trying (for instance while serving on the board of antiquities for Russia’s most revered monastery) to save the traditions and artifacts of the Church (even, according to this account, smuggling away the head of a saint whose tomb was to be desecrated) in an increasingly grim time.

It’s the story of a long failure, as Florensky is finally arrested, does more scientific work for a time in a Siberian camp, writes his wife and children beautiful letters from a crumbling monastery converted in a labor camp and prison on the North Sea, and is ultimately shot on obscure charges and buried in a mass grave outside Moscow. It is in these final days that Pyman’s account becomes most poignant, balancing a despairing narrative of the wearing away of individuality in the gulag archipelago with passages of hope from Florensky’s letters home.

I’m stuck by the deep Christian heritage there is to draw upon in the Russian tradition. Florensky the scientist and father was a contemporary of the Athonite monk St. Silouan, whose work I’m also reading now. Silouan represents a deeply contemplative, mystical approach to faith lived out in obedience and humility in a Russian monastery on Athos. Florensky, on the other hand, was an intellectual (though also with a mystical bent), a family man, with a wife and five children, writing and teaching in the tumult of Moscow. Florensky and Siouan lived very different embodiments of the common faith, and Florensky’s life gives some hope in the possibility of living in grace in the context of home and science.

As far as Florensky’s actual scientific contributions, Pyman does a good job documenting his career and giving summaries of his theological work, but her treatment of his mathematical and scientific works are less satisfactory. We’re told he was a great mathematician, that he anticipated certain developments in quantum mechanics even, and that he drew on this to construct some kind of theology of number, but none of this is expounded on, and as far as his context among Russian science in general, very little is said. This is likely due to the writer’s background, but it leaves the true extent and lasting influence of Florensky to be taken on faith by those outside the Russian scientific sphere. (The question of Florensky’s influence is one I would have liked to have heard more about. The narrative stops abruptly with his death, offering no discussion of the fate of his family or how his writings and influence began to make themselves felt during the long Soviet thaw.)

For those who are trying to practice a life of faith lived out in writing, in intellectual dialogue, teaching, and service– and this in the spheres of both family and asceticism– the account of Florensky’s life, successes, and long fading will be inspiring and poignant. They will recognize a kindred spirit. And for those who bemoan the uncertainty of the times, the transitions or dissolutions of the culture, and the fate of the Church within all this, they will find an example of what a life of faith looked like played out in a “post-apocalyptic” society.

Take heart, little flock.