Read in 2013

June 19, 2013

Books  Read Entire, Listed Chronologically

This post continues in process, updated as I return book by book to discussing my reading.

Ratings given follow the system used in the Red Wing Area Branch (AAUW) Book Club: 5-best; 4-top 20%; 3-middling; 2-less than average, 1-bottom. Other designations appear as BC – Branch Book Club selections; CP-Classics for Pilgrim Book Club; SF-Stratford Festival plays; YA-titles written for teenage or younger readers.

11 June 2013: Antonio Maldo, Do You Believe: conversations on God and religion (2007); 1st published in Italian (2006) 178p.

Through his own contacts and other connections, Maldo held eighteen interviews with noted individuals, mostly authors of great literary distinction or those renown in the film industry. All subjects had an American connection and he met them in New York City, other east coast locations, or one in Rome. The first interview was in 2002, 3 in 03, 2 in 04, 10 in 05, and 2 in 06. The eldest of the contributors was Saul Bellow (1915-2005) followed by Arthur Schlesinger (1917-2007) and Grace Paley (1922-2007). The youngest were Jonathan Franzen (b. 1959) and Spike Lee (b. 1957).

The encounters reported depended on availability – Arthur Miller and Susan Sontag who were wanted died before the project reached them – so no pretense of statistical representation can be claimed. Determining how much of what is reported is due to what was said or Maldo’s editing remains impossible. Nevertheless, the interviews, about 600 words each, are elegant, lively, and stimulating.

Faith backgrounds include, Jews, Protestants, a Muslim, and Catholics. As individuals, the 18 included believers and non-believers and at least one pronounced agnostic. Nevertheless, all admit to the function of religion historically, in the culture, and in politics. In general, they have all probed themselves over the existence of deity, the role of belief in life and values, the mysteries of life, and the problems of fundamentalism reaching into society. As is often the case, they criticize faiths for rigid doctrine, bureaucracy, the hypocrisy of believers, theocracy or meddling in politics. Many of the interviewed regard faith as a private or personal matter, mentioning that it is not talked about. As intellectuals all, they see faith as a matter of consent and prize religion to the extent that it provides freedom; no one mentions even a glimmer of faith as a work performed within the soul or by the divine. Further, no one mentions a scriptural source as the basis of belief. Maldo poses each time the quote, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen,” (Hebrews 11.1). Yet no one deals with what this statement means or the individual words signify.

On the whole I found the respondents articulate and full of marvelous expressions on religion and the times in which we live. Reading the interviews produced in me a rapt attention and gave me a profound sense of admiration. I read through the book quickly, penciling on the pages many reactions and notations. Afterwards, I eagerly returned to analyze the whole. Here are but a few gems.

The problem of absolutism is that it leads you to believe that you own the truth. If you start from this assumption, you open the door to every sort of distortion, and you dehumanize whoever doesn’t share your beliefs. – Paul Suster, p.23

…seeking the truth is what makes life bearable. Some time ago, when I was correcting a manuscript, I had a flash of intuition, and from that moment, I swore to myself that everything I produced would have to be sincere, including the articles and conjunctions. – Paula Fox, p.79

My own religion is books, and to me the believers are the people who read, and the sad fact is that I’m just not very interested in people who don’t read, unless they feel like converting to my religion. – Jonathan Franzen, p.88

… I know that there always exists a yearning for God. All the mind can do is learn, and the moment when the mind stops coincides with death. – Toni Morrison, p.120

[Pascal] wasn’t the first to speak of a hidden God. The Bible itself speaks of God who covers his face. And my interpretation – it’s not only mine – is that God covers his face because he can’t bear wheat he sees, what men do. – Elie Wiesel, p.170.

These interviews appear to me to be a host of beginnings. The participants identify a number of authors, novels, directors, and films that have religious or spiritual implications. I am making my list of where to go next.

I give this one a 4+ for its many offerings, even though theologically I found it wanting.

2 August 2013: Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: listening for the voice of vocation (2000). 117p.

Parker, a noted educator, spiritual guide and advocate, explores the intersection of two human concerns of prime interest to me – selfhood and vocation. Selfhood means the inner identity of one’s life; vocation means a recognition of calling as to the principal aims and actions of that life. Presumably each self has a unique identity and thereby each vocation, however it may be categorized, has its unique aim. Realization of self and responsiveness to vocation are necessarily journeys of discovery and development.

Palmer’s personal story forms a base to this guidebook since, though outwardly successful in his early career, he felt unfulfilled and mistaken. The breakthrough to true self came in listening to what his own experience identified as gifts (or strengths) and liabilities (or weaknesses). If we pause to recognize these inward facts, they will define and direct us as a person.

At first reading, I found myself cautiously judgmental because he bemoaned his academic way of thinking through the problem as though it were a head problem “far from the ground.” Since I’m in my head most of the time, this is a hard lease. In a second reading, I found the book tight and consistent with his emphasis on consciousness of experience wile listening to self and connecting with others to be relevant and helpful.

At his point, I will say 4 given that the although the book is compact it is accordingly slight; the advice is mostly of a signpost nature and requires individual application and testing.

Copyright © 2013 by Roger Sween.

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