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Gospel of John

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Book Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

My children and I have been reading this book together over the course of Advent. We finished the fifth and final chapter just after Mass on Christmas Day. It has been a delightful source of meditation and conversation for the whole family throughout this sacred season. I see an annual Advent reading of Dickens’ masterpiece becoming a family tradition.

I believe the great power of this book lies in its subtlety, as the presence of Christ, the “reason for the season,” as the cliche goes, remains the dominant force in the book while working in and through the background. There are several instances, for example, in which his name is nearly said, yet remains unstated. Bob Cratchit, for example, reports to his wife, upon returning home after a Christmas church service, Tiny Tim had told him he was happy to be at church so that he could be a reminder to others of He who healed the crippled, like himself. Similarly, Peter, Bob’s eldest son, is seen reading a book from which he recites the words “let the little children come unto me,” a reference that Scrooge recognizes but can’t quite place.

All of these subtle reference to the real personality at the heart of the story culminate in one of the greatest understatements in English literature (and English literature is rife with such understatements) when Dickens tells us that, having risen in the morning after his various visions of Christmas spirits, Scrooge “went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying too and fro, and patted the children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure.” He went to church stands at the head of the sentence and is clearly the referent to everything that follows it in the same breathless list of Scrooge’s (quite Christ-like) activities. In only four simple single-syllable words, Dickens has gotten to the heart of things. Scrooge has turned himself to the Savior whose birth we are called to celebrate and, no doubt, communed with him in his Body and Blood, uniting himself with Christ and thereby becoming Christ-like.

The new Scrooge is not merely a kinder, gentler version of the old Scrooge. He has not become “nice.” He has been converted. He has become altogether a new man, born again on Christmas Day by being born into that child born so many hundreds of years ago in Bethlehem.

Book Review: How to Read the Bible as Literature by Leland Ryken

Ryken here offers a very succinct, though not especially engaging, introduction to reading the Bible as literature. His approach to this introduction is thematic, with chapters about, for example, the parables of Jesus, the use of satire in the Bible, and biblical poetry, among other subjects. The final chapter, explaining the literary unity of the Bible, is also very good.

A particularly positive aspect of this book is that through introducing the Bible as literature Ryken provides a book that is a sound introduction to both the Bible and to literature more generally. Because the Bible is such a tremendous compendium of types of literature and, in some sense, the source of nearly every Western story of the past thousand years and more, any exploration of the Bible as literature necessarily is an introduction to Western literature more generally. As a result, even if you are not interested in the Bible in particular, this book is a very worthwhile resource on the centerpiece and source of so much of the Western literary tradition.

The downside of this book is its style. Ryken opts for a very straightforward approach that sometimes seems more like one is reading the outline of a book than a book itself. While this style choice makes this book quite succinct, it also makes it quite dry. My recommendation, for the sake of avoiding tedium as well as because it completes the picture, is to read relevant biblical texts alongside each of the chapters of this book.

Matthew and Acts

I am (finally!) beginning to catch up to where I had planned to be by this time in the Great Books of the Western World 10 Year Reading Plan. My (slightly modified version of the original) plan is to double up on the reading for the next few months. If (if!) I am able to do this, I will be able to catch up by the Spring, so stay tuned as we continue this journey. In the mean time, here are a few brief thoughts on the most recent reading, the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles:

As I noted in my comments on last month’s readings (from Plutarch), I have continued to see a theme of focus on leadership and government in the works we have read thus far this year. With this in mind, it is possible to compare the leadership of Christ over the apostles and of the apostles over the early Christian communities with the leadership of those figures whom Plutarch discusses in last month’s readings.

Like Numa and Lycurgus, we can certainly view Christ as a lawgiver. While a comparison of Christ-as-lawgiver/community-founder with Numa and/or Lycurgus as the same is the stuff dissertations are made of and I don’t plan to write a dissertation on this subject, there are some notable points of comparison and contrast that can be gotten at without the expenditure of much effort. Numa, for example, is referred to as a very pious individual by Plutarch; ostensibly, Numa derived the laws he delivered to the people through a divine medium. Similarly, of course, Christ, the new law-giver, comes with a new law that is of divine origin; notably, he also reorients the old law toward himself in his claim to be the divine figure who brought the earlier law.

It is also worth mentioning that one major contention that the Romans had with Christ and, later, with his followers was Christ’s claim of kingship, which seemed to be (and is, in the letters of St. Paul) a challenge to the authority of Caesar. Numa, as a founding figure of the Romans, then, stands in a sort of conflict with Christ in his claim of dominion.

The two historical (as opposed to mythological) figures discussed by Plutarch in last month’s readings, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, also present quite insightful contrasts with the leadership of Christ and his apostles. One might compare, for instance, the deaths of Caesar and Christ. Both are killed by their own people for their claim to be king, both are betrayed by a friend, the last words of both before their respective deaths are cries of abandonment,  but the nature of their claims are ultimately quite different: Caesar is murdered for grabbing ever greater amounts of power; Christ offers himself as a sacrifice on behalf of his people. It might be worth discussing this more when we read Dante in the future, given Dante’s placement of the murderers of Caesar (Cassius and Brutus) alongside the betrayer of Christ (Judas) in the mouths of Lucifer in the center of Hell.

There is much more that could be added here, but I will keep my remarks brief over the next several months as I seek to catch up in the reading list. I would be delighted to read and discuss any thoughts you might have about these readings. Leave a comment here to share your thoughts with us.