Saturday, September 01, 2007

Things I'm Reading


Much of my time these days has been taken up with reading the two books I'm reviewing for Books & Culture, An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture For Worship and Ministry Today by Mark Torgerson and Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred by Philip Bess. It's the latter that I'm working on presently and which I've found deliciously tasty to the mind.
His basic idea is this: that the best life for individual human beings is the life of moral and intellectual virtue lived in community with others, especially in a city, that great community of communities whose foremost purpose is the best life for its citizens. That's a mouthful, yes, but the spunk gets going soon.
Life in American post-WWII, he argues, has been abominable when it comes to urban design.
Sprawl development has killed us, he says, and I believe him. It not only makes Americans enslaved to the automobile (and fat if they're not careful), suburban utopia is culturally and environmentally unsustainable. It's also plain ugly. His point is not to say that the gospel cannot come alive in the suburbs or that reasonable people cannot make the best of it, it's rather that the form of "sprawl reality" is killing authentic community.
--that, of course, in cahoots with "America's true growth industry, the care and tending of the autonomous self."
By appealing to profit-driven forces and our appetite for individualism, sprawl development robs us of the best social and aesthetic features of historic urban life, features that belong to an Aristotelian-Thomist tradition of urban and human well-being. In its stead the author Philip Bess, along with his New Urbanist colleagues, contends for mixed-use, walkable settlements that would promote genuine human flourishing within sustainable ecosystems.
Here are a few other juicy quips, starting with a particularly spicy bit from Tocqueville on individualism in America (ca. 1840):
Individualism, he observes, is "a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. . . . [Thus] does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, [and] hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart."

"It appears that the new role of the would-be avant garde is not to lead, but rather to create novelties a propos of nothing."

"The limitation of possibilities is the first prerequisite of human happiness."

"Beauty is not relative but relational."

"In even the best of places, community requires both time and care."

The best of architecture (according to Aristotle) is durable, useful and beautiful.

We as artists should perhaps cultivate "a studied disregard of the zeitgeist and a more serious courting of the heiligeist."
"Good design cannot cause happiness but it can be an occasion for and manifestation of happiness."

In other matters, my mornings these days are assisted by the English vicar David Adam's fine little book, The Rhythm of Life: Celtic Daily Prayers. The prayers are arranged thematically and keep to a seven-day rhythm, Sunday through Saturday. The seven themes are: Resurrection, Creation, Incarnation, Holy Spirit, Community, The Cross, The Saints. It's been a great help for me, whether I have 10 or 50 minutes to spend in prayer. And pray I must if I'm to stay sane.
I've just finished up Eugene Peterson's Leap Over a Wall in which he explores the life of the biblical David. I'll be preaching this Sunday the last of our eight-month series on David and I've appreciated having Peterson as one of my guides.
I picked up at Half Price Books a multi-novel volume set of H.G. Wells' works and dove straight into the evolutionary lunacy of The Island of Dr. Moreau. I've just now moved on to The Time Machine.
Bored on a recent night and uninterested in watching a movie on my roommate Ed's supersized projector screen, I drove to my local Walgreens and bought a paperback Ludlum, The Bourne Ultimatum. Confused for the first two hundred pages I eventually went online and discovered, with a great sense of relief and frustration, that the book version and the movie version bear no resemblance to each other--whatsoever. The one is a Cold War story with a 50-year old man, the other is a post 9/11 tale with a rogue agent the exact same age as Matt Damon. God bless those movie producers.
In July I finished Ron Hansen's achingly beautiful Atticus. Here's a poignant excerpt.
“Are you painting?” [the 67-year old Colorado rancher Atticus asks his son Scott]

“Yes.”

“Sell anything?”

“I just am, Dad. You’ve got one son who’s a huge success that any father’d be proud of, and you’ve got one son who’s a slacker and using up your hard-earned cash on just getting by from week to week. Hell, I’m forty years old. You oughta be used to me being a failure by now.”

Were Atticus to talk honestly, he thought, he’d say he was alone all the time and this was his son whom he loved and ached for, and heaven was where he was, and Atticus hated himself, as he always did, for insisting and teaching and holding up standards and seeming to want Scott to be him, when all he wanted was for Scott to be happy and to know he was loved and loved and loved. “Shall I change the subject?” he asked.

"Work it to death if you want?”

I'm still working, slogging, pounding (and being pounded) my way through Willard's Divine Conspiracy. He, like Peterson, Buechner, Chesterton, Kathleen Norris, is dizzyingly quotable.
"One of the most telling things about contemporary human beings is that they cannot find a reason for not committing adultery. Yet intimacy is a spiritual hunger of the human soul, and we cannot escape it. This has always been true and remains true today. We now keep hammering the sex button in the hope that a little intimacy might finally dribble out. In vain. For intimacy comes only within the framework of an individualized faithfulness within the kingdom of God" (163).
And again:
"We must recognize, first of all, that the aim of the popular teacher in Jesus' time was not to impart information, but to make a significant change in the lives of the hearers. Of course that may require an information transfer, but it is a peculiarly modern notion that the aim of teaching is to bring people to know things that may have no effect at all on their lives" (112).
In my latest raid of Half Price Books I also picked up Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Alice McDermott's Charming Billy, John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies, and, serendipitously, Updike's edited work of The Best American Short Stories of the Century which begins with Benjamin Rosenblatt's "Zelig" in 1915 and ends with Pam Houston's "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had" in 1999. I love this statement by Updike in his introduction:

"I tried not to select stories because they illustrated a theme or portion of the national experience but because they struck me as lively, beautiful, believable, and, in the human news they brought, important."

That's such a sweet, blessed thing to hear.
Lastly but not leastly I'm capering my way through The Pocket Stylist: Behind-the-Scenes Expertise from a Fashion Pro on Creating Your Own Look by Kendall Farr. Every man should own a copy. Women too. Where else, pray tell, will you get this kind of advice?
"Style is not only the province of iconic swans like Audrey Hepburn or Jacqueline Onassis, it is learned behavior and a simple and gradual process of training your eye to lock onto your best silhouettes and proportions in any season, any year."
You see? It's good stuff! I mean, c'mon, that sounds like something even Dallas Willard would say. For Phaedra and me it's building all kinds of stylistic fun into our relationship. So man or woman: get yourself a copy and fret no more about your circle skirts, tailored pants, boat necks, pea coats, cape sleeves, bombers and empires and flares--it all comes under the lordship of a whimsical Christ. Know thyself and be free.
(PHOTO: my old small group displaying a great sense of fashion around Halloween '06.)

3 comments:

The Aesthetic Elevator said...

I really quite envy your job. It seems like the ideal job I'd created for myself just out of college, but figured there really wasn't such a thing out there. Further, I don't have any formal Bible training, which I'm sure most religious hiring institutions would frown upon.

But then, maybe that's part of why the arts are so lacking in the American Church: The Church has focused too much on the theology, putting too little interest into the practical.

livingpalm said...

thanks for the mini-reviews...i'm quite addicted to reading and feel i have such a short time on earth to read it all so i rely heavily on recommendations from people i respect. Divine Conspiracy is next on my list and i'm very much looking forward to it.
(great tip on the 'style' book, too...that's a whole genre i'd never even considered!)

kelly said...

HI. Cool blog. Do you have any idea how can I get in toouch with Colin Goode?