What I Read In December [from the book pile, 2016]

*Catching up on unfinished blog posts in my draft folder!

December is the time for cozy mysteries (except for that one for our reading group!)

December is the time for cozy mysteries (except for that one for our reading group!)



35  Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation, by Madeleine L'Engle  (Shaw Books, 2001. 208 pages) 

Reading category: a book with a blue cover

This was a lovely way to begin Advent.  L'Engle specializes in childlike wonder - the main ingredients of Advent and Christmas.  In addition to wonder, she also writes from a place of questioning, and, then, accepting mystery.  This, too, is a kind of childlike quality that I always appreciate.

36  The Christmas Mystery, written by Jostein Gaarder, illustrated by Rosemary Wells , translated by Elizabeth Rokkan  (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1996.) 

Reading category: a book based on a fairy tale (not quite, but close enough!)

This is an odd little Christmas story based on the age-old storytelling methods of time travel and fantasy.  A little boy, Joachim, living in Norway with his mother and father discovers a worn, homemade Advent calendar in a shop just before December 1st.  The calendar turns out to be magical, inviting Joachim into the tale of a merry band of travelers making their way to the Nativity.  This would have been fun to read years ago with my kids during the month of December.

37  Shepherds Abiding (Mitford Series), by Jan Karon (Penguin Books, 2004. 365 pages) 

Reading category: my mother gave it to me and promised I would enjoy it

As with the rest of the Mitford series, my mother was right.  A simple, enjoyable story involving quirky, small-town characters preparing for Christmas.  I especially enjoyed imaging Father Tim restoring the beautiful, neglected Nativity scene to surprise his wife.  The culmination of the story reminded me a little bit of the sweet gift-giving tale in O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi.

38  Winter Street: A Novel, by Elin Hilderbrand (Back Bay Books, 2015. 272 pages) 

Reading category: Christmas vacation fluff reading!

Just a simple, fluffy read that I especially enjoyed because - like many of my favorite Christmas movies - it's set in a New England inn.  Other than that, it was like watching a Hallmark movie, and I didn't mind one bit.

39  The Twelve Clues of Christmas: A Royal Spyness Mystery, by Rhys Bowen (Berkley, 2013. 352 pages) 

Reading category: my friend Amy recommended

The week before Christmas, I browsed the mystery section of our library and picked up every book that mentioned Christmas in the title (there's surprisingly quite a few!). For a few months now, I've been meaning to read a Rhys Bowen mystery, and thought this would be the perfect place to start. 

Here's the Amazon summary:

Scotland, 1933. While her true love, Darcy O’Mara, is spending his feliz navidad tramping around South America and her mother is holed up in a tiny village called Tiddleton-under-Lovey with droll playwright Noel Coward, Georgie is quite literally stuck at Castle Rannoch thanks to a snowstorm.
It seems like a Christmas miracle when she manages to land a position as hostess to a posh holiday party in Tiddleton. The village should be like something out of A Christmas Carol, but as soon as she arrives things take a deadly turn when a neighborhood nuisance falls out of a tree.  On her second day, another so-called accident results in a death—and there’s yet another on her third, making Georgie wonder if there's something wicked happening in this winter wonderland...  

Perfect, right?  Yes. (and I felt so smart when I started to put the clues together!)

40  Winter Solstice, by Rosamunde Pilcher  

Reading category: a cozy, seasonal re-read

From my original reading:  Modern day tale of love and grief in England and Scotland.  I kept thinking it'd make a great Christmas movie (anyone?).  Also, it's one of those stories where the food is described in simple, but yummy description that you want to make meals along with the characters.  (e.g., Shepherd's pie on a blustery Scottish winter afternoon)

41  Silence: A Novel, by Shusaku Endo

Reading category: Liturgy of Life reading group & (newly-formed) Apostles Reads group

I first read Endo's classic novel back in 2010 with the IAM Reader's Guild.  Before reading I'd never heard Endo's name before, and knew nothing about the history of Christianity in Japan.  I wasn't really prepared for the depth of suffering told in the story.  

2010 review for Reader's Guild

When we began a reading group for our church, I knew immediately that I wanted us to start with Silence.  It's the kind of book that fosters deep wrestling with themes of personal faith, religious institutions, Christian mission and martyrdom.  In addition, I knew the movie would be released in area theaters around January and I wanted some friends to join me!  While it's possible to see the movie without reading the book, I didn't want anyone to miss the opportunity to read Endo's exquisite imagining of characters within a historically documented era of his home country. Our group conversation went better than I'd hoped, and I was honored by the intentionality each person approached our first book.  Some experienced the book in a positive way, and at least one person called it "devastating".  We fell out in different places on what we felt our choice would be should we ever be asked, on pain of torture, to deny our faith.  In this time of increasing persecution against Christians across the globe, we felt closer to the idea than just a story from 17th century Japan.  

I recommend both the book and the movie, but would really recommend you read the book first.  There's so much in Endo's story that is internal and invisible conflict.  In the movie, Scorcese creates grand (and, often, horrifying) cinematic space for that ongoing conflict to play out in the gestures and postures of the characters (most notably, Father Rodrigues as played by an inspired Andrew Garfield).  Without reading the book, I might have not known what exactly to make of that cinematic space, and leave feeling with a sense of more ambiguity than I think Endo intended with the novel.  At the same time, through Scorcese's lens, I grew in compassion for some of the characters that I could barely stomach in the book.  As an example of this increased empathy, I left the film with a greater appreciation for the depths of grace and mercy represented by the continuous falling away of the Gollum-like character of Kichijiro.  I left the movie not perceiving him as, possibly, a Gollum redeemed, which feels personally familiar to me in an important way.

So many people have said so many wonderful things about Silence, the novel and the movie.  Here's a post collecting many of those links:  Scorsese’s “Silence”: Critical praise, interviews, resources via Art & Theology blog

This is a book I will read again and again because it requires both theological precision and deepening empathy.  It's a beautiful sort of devastation.

* This year, I'm part of two different reading groups made up of friends and sisters. You can find the lists here: Take Our Ultimate Reading Challenge / A Year of Reading the World, & Liturgy of Life reading group. *

**The Amazon links in this post are affiliate links. After blogging about books for ten years, I thought it might be OK to get a little help financing my reading habit. Thank you! **

Go to my Book Pile page to see my reading lists from 2016 and previous years.

Here's my Goodreads page. Let's be friends!

Epiphany, 2: Behold, the Lamb of God

An Epiphany daybook -- devotional guide -- for these weeks of witness. Join me, won't you? 

by Raj Solomon

by Raj Solomon

A playlist for the second week of Epiphany - Come to the Water

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.’
— John 1:29-34

Today's prayer:

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
— Book of Common Prayer

Renew Baptism Vows.png

Today is a good day to renew your baptism vows -- whether in your corporate worship service or in your family and personal prayer time. May I recommend this post from my son's baptism? It includes the Anglican baptism liturgy, but applicable for all followers of Christ.  

(see all Epiphany posts from 2017 here)

A Few More Words On the Hole In Wendell Berry's Gospel

I've received some of the greatest gifts of my writing life since publishing this essay in Plough Quarterly’s winter issue last month. I knew I was taking a risk by critiquing the absoluteness of ideals author Wendell Berry, beloved by me and countless others, promotes in his work. I expected lots of people to disagree. I guessed right. What I wasn’t sure how to calculate is who might actually agree with what I had to say.  I took some comfort in knowing that, at the very least, the journal's editors thought there was some value in what I had to say. With this sort of low expectation, you might be able to imagine my surprise when Rod Dreher wrote an overwhelmingly gracious and eloquent response at The American Conservative.  I read each paragraph carefully, expecting the shoe of disapproval to drop at some point.  It never did.  

I also did not expect the level of grace and thougtfulness from those who wrote objections to my essay. This is not the first time Jeffrey Bilbro has offered me a genial counterargument to my thoughts on Wendell Berry’s fiction.  His response (published at Front Porch Republic) to the Plough article includes a friendly admonition to me for not heeding his earlier advice to become more familiar with the range of characters and conflicts within Berry’s fictional Port William.  He’s not wrong. Although I continued to read a copious amount of Berry’s writing, when Plough contacted me about expanding the essay from its earlier version published at Art House America, I did not take Bilbro’s recommendation to update literary references much beyond Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow.

Instead, I pressed further into my own story and into the teaching of historical Church leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I spent more time looking into Wendell Berry’s real-life experiences growing up in Kentucky, a state fighting to keep its agrarian livelihood.  In the context of our national election, I'd read J.D. Vance and found myself intrigued by the parallels and differences between his experience of Appalachian culture and Berry’s. In hindsight, I realize I could just as easily have referenced Rod Dreher’s beautiful book describing the care his hometown offered his terminally-ill sister, Ruthie. I first read The Little Way of Ruthie Leming in 2013, and noted then that Dreher’s account was a pleasant contrast to my concerns with Berry’s smalltown depictions.

I think one of the better outcomes for this conversation is for us all to accept Bilbro's challenge to not overlook the "seamier side of Port William's history". As he and Jake Meador (the author of this critique) have indicated, I am not a Berry scholar, merely a literary fan (reading, up to this point, about half of his fiction and poetry, and a third of his nonfiction).  In addition to my work as a freelance writer and priest's wife, I've spent a lot of time in ministry caring for those who have been relationally, emotionally and sexually abused. Without placing too heavy a weight on the conversation, I'll admit that a certain amount of the frustration I experience with the rural folk in Port William cannot be separated from my own stories of sexual abuse within a rural community. It'd be fair for anyone critiquing my essay to wonder if I may be projecting my own real-life story onto the Port William membership.  At the same time, I'd argue that this is one of the reasons any of us read.  We are searching for stories to help us know others and ourselves better. And, for this reason if no other, I am forever grateful to Mr. Berry for helping me to think, maybe especially, when I feel frustrated with the characters he crafts.

This is what I found most rewarding about Dreher’s feedback to my essay. While I enjoyed the fact that he used words like “provocative” and “truth-telling”, tears came to my eyes when I read sentences like this:

“Until reading Murphy’s essay, I hadn’t realized how much Wendell Berry reminds me of my dad…”

and in his follow-up post:

"Murphy’s essay resonated with me, in large part because I try to be vigilant against my own tendencies to romanticize the past."

These words are the highest compliments anyone could ever give me. It's this sort of reflection I find conspicuously absent in the rebuttals from Bilbro and others who seem to engage the conversation at the literary level alone. 

As I’ve been given the gift to reconsider my essay, I’ve been able to gain clarity what I’m hoping to say in response to those who wish to follow his ideals. While it’s true that Wendell Berry warns readers against trying to “find a message” in his fiction, it’s also true that many people do, indeed, form life values inspired by his skillfully crafted descriptions of the beauty of agrarian life.  Wendell Berry offers a credible viewpoint that counters the dominant cultural obsession with an economy built on industrialism and mobility-at-all-costs.  Unfortunately, there is little pushback to this cultural stance from within our evangelical subcultures, making Mr. Berry's voice invaluable. I say, wholeheartedly, thank God for Christians who read and emulate Wendell Berry's life and work, and for those within the Christian community who read Berry's work spiritually. I would include myself - to some extent - as one of them.

My response to the Port William membership is not a critique on Berry’s ability to write excellent stories (which he unequivocally does), but to say that there’s a noticeable dissonance between the Port William membership and a community of people wholly-formed theologically. In particular, I’m proposing that Berry often writes characters that resist the sort of full transformation that comes only by way of repentance.  In my essay, I highlight Wendell Berry and J.D. Vance’s grandfathers as examples of this kind of repentance.  I share the story of my grandmother’s difficult life as an example of the sort of redemption we can find, even within a rural heritage that has not yet embraced repentance. (A side note: Resistance to acts of repentance is not a problem unique to rural communities, but since rural communities are considerably declining, the temptation to gloss over dysfunction increases.)

I’m happy to own any sloppiness on my part that makes it difficult for a reader to see these gospel themes of repentance and redemption as primary for me. In this regard, I am especially grateful to pastor and author Charles Moore for his feedback:  

“This is one of the best essays I’ve read in a long time. It’s wonderfully written, gracious, but also hits the bulls-eye when it comes to Berry’s uncritical, romantic idealism. Murphy is spot on in her assessment of Berry. I simply couldn’t agree with her more (even though I like Berry a lot!). She lifts the lid off of Berry’s truncated soteriology....”

Or, to put it as succinctly as one editor: “it’s Berry’s gospel that’s up for debate, not his literary brilliance!”

To those among my Christian friends and colleagues who hold Mr. Berry and his writing up as a model for cultivating good, true and beautiful economies within the world, I’m encouraging us to practice discernment.  Ideals are inspiring, but they are not sustaining.  When we limit Mr. Berry’s words to ideals, we limit the greater, everlasting function of a gospel-shaped economy.  

It’s not that I have no literary agenda for my essay. If I’m being completely transparent, I would love a few Port William’s sequels telling next-generation stories of Hannah Coulter’s children and grandchildren. Within those stories, perhaps Mr. Berry could describe how it might look for them (my generation) to practice resurrection now? In the meantime, I listen to Rod Dreher’s story of life both within and beyond the “borders of West Feliciana Parish”,  read my Grandmother’s diary of growing up abandoned and rescued in upstate New York, and keep track of every story I can find describing generational reconciliation.  

I am so grateful to everyone who's taken the time to read my essay and offer feedback. I'm including in that gratitude the literary scholars, like Jeff Bilbro (and my friend Dr. Janet Goodrich, the person who introduced me to Wendell Berry years ago), who help us to plumb the depths of generations of Port Williams’ characters.  In the meantime, I plan to keep reading Wendell Berry’s splendid words in every genre, and hope to live into the most striking Gospel-call the author gives us -  to practice resurrection here and now.

This week I went back to Wendell Berry school.

This week I went back to Wendell Berry school.

Feast of The Epiphany

I am under the weather, but wanted to give you this little gift - a collage of artwork from around the world imagining the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child.  During the season of Epiphany, I'll sharing a post each Sunday to mark the journey of Christ, as He manifests God's presence among men.  I'm also excited to share again a guest post each week from friends around the world, sharing witness of Christ's presence in their own neighborhoods.  

The Word became Flesh and moved into the neighborhood....

The Feast of the Epiphany is the final feast day of the Christmas season. It celebrates those events in Christ’s early life that revealed his divine nature to those around him. In a larger sense, this feast reminds us that the Incarnation involves the announcement of salvation to “all nations.” The Good News is not for a privileged group but for everyone everywhere.

”Epiphany” comes from the Greek word “epiphaneia”, which is translated both as “coming” and as “manifestation” or “appearing.” While Christmas celebrates Christ’s coming in the Incarnation event, Epiphany celebrates manifestation - the ways in which the Incarnation is revealed to us.

The feast of the Epiphany originated in the Eastern Church. It was celebrated as early as the third century, even before Christmas was part of the liturgical calendar. For early Christians, Epiphany was primarily a feast celebrating the manifestation of Christ as his baptism, when it was revealed to those present that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. The feast also celebrated other events that revealed Christ’s identity to the world, including the Magi’s adoration of the Christ-child and Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding at Cana.

In the early church, Epiphany was also a commemoration of Christ’s nativity - God made manifest through his literal appearance in the flesh. This changed in the fourth century, when the church began to observe the feast of the Incarnation on Christmas Day. As December 25 became the sole feast devoted to Christ’s nativity, the focus of Epiphany was narrowed to commemorate other important manifestations of Christ.
— God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the Peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
— Book of Common Prayer
house blessing.jpg

One of the most meaningful activities we've done on Epiphany is a house blessing.  This can be as simple as marking the doorways with chalk and a prayer of blessing or as specific as praying through each room of the house with specific prayers like those found in the traditional Anglican House blessing. (Click here for a pdf version of an Anglican House Blessing.)

Christmas Daybook, 12: The Wise Men

My Christmas daybook for these 12 days of celebrating. We'll be spending Christmastide with the good, old theologian/British mystery writer/ Christmas elf, G.K. Chesterton. Join us, won't you?   (see all Christmas daybook 2016-17 posts here)

“We come bearing gifts of myrrh and gold…” Calander sheets for ‘January’ depicting the Three Wise Men by Heinrich Lefler and Josef Urban. Published 1899 as part of an Austrian calendar. (source)

“We come bearing gifts of myrrh and gold…”

Calander sheets for ‘January’ depicting the Three Wise Men by Heinrich Lefler and Josef Urban. Published 1899 as part of an Austrian calendar. (source)

STEP softly, under snow or rain,
To find the place where men can pray;
The way is all so very plain,
That we may lose the way.

Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore
On tortured puzzles from our youth.
We know all labyrinthine lore,
We are the three Wise Men of yore,
And we know all things but the truth.

Go humbly . . . it has hailed and snowed . . .
With voices low and lanterns lit,
So very simple is the road,
That we may stray from it.

The world grows terrible and white,
And blinding white the breaking day,
We walk bewildered in the light,
For something is too large for sight,
And something much too plain to say.

The Child that was ere worlds begun
( . . . We need but walk a little way . . .
We need but see a latch undone . . . )
The Child that played with moon and sun
Is playing with a little hay.

The house from which the heavens are fed,
The old strange house that is our own,
Where tricks of words are never said,
And Mercy is as plain as bread,
And Honour is as hard as stone,

Go humbly; humble are the skies,
And low and large and fierce the Star,
So very near the Manger lies,
That we may travel far.

Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes
To roar to the resounding plain,
And the whole heaven shouts and shakes,
For God Himself is born again
And we are little children walking
Through the snow and rain.
— "The Wise Men" by G. K. Chesterton

Listen: As With Gladness, Men of Old (beautiful lyrics here)

Today's Readings:  Psalm 72; Joshua 1:1-9; Hebrews 11:32-12:2

Prayer for the day: 

O God of light and peace,
whose glory, shining in the child of Bethlehem,
still draws the nations to yourself:
dispel the darkness that shrouds our path,
that we may come
to kneel before Christ in true worship,
offer him our hearts and souls,
and return from his presence to live as he has taught. Amen.
— Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, 2002

12 Ways To Savor the 12 Days of Christmas (ideas to celebrate the last day of Christmastide)