Summer and Fall reading 2019

Summer Reading.jpg

During every summer recess from the academic year, I come up with a reading plan, which is usually too ambitious. Nevertheless, these are the books that I want to read in the coming months.



  • Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (1915). Having read O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918) in this author’s Prairie Trilogy, I look forward to The Song of the Lark, which is set in my native Colorado and college town of Chicago.
  • N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn (1968). To deepen my sense of place in the American West, I am eager to read this masterpiece of Native American literature and 1969 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction.
  • Walker Percy, The Second Coming (1980). Since I read The Last Gentleman (1966) this spring, I shall continue the story of protagonist Will Barrett in the sequel that was published fourteen years later.

N O N – F I C T I O N

  • Søren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity (trans. Walter Lowrie). Of the many works he wrote during 1848, his “richest and most fruitful year,” the Danish philosopher specified Training in Christianity as “the most perfect and truest thing.”
  • Sylvia Walsh, Kierkegaard and Religion: Personality, Character, and Virtue. Sylvia Walsh, along with C. Stephen Evans, is my favorite Kierkegaard scholar. Her latest contribution sounds very promising because of its focus on “personality, character, and virtue,” which will tie into my reading on the Enneagram (see below).
  • Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College. This is a classic work by the late professor of philosophy at Wheaton College. Even though it is concerned with higher education, the insights are relevant to secondary education.
  • Todd C. Ream & Perry L. Glanzer, The Idea of a Christian College: A Reexamination for Today’s University. Much has changed since 1975 when Holmes published his book, so these authors “account for changes in how people view the church and themselves as human agents, and propose a vision for the Christian college in light of the fact that so many Christian colleges now look and act more like research universities.”
  • Peter Wehner, The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump. More than anyone else, Peter Wehner persuaded me to vote against Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election thanks to his New York Times op-eds. Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center who has served three Republican administrations. With the 2020 election looming, I want to read this new book by one of President Trump’s most ardent critics, whose objections are based on conservative and Christian principles. The Axe Files (with David Alexrod), The Long Game (with Jon Ward), and The Bulwark (with Charlie Sykes) podcasts feature Peter Wehner, who is a fascinating guest. 
  • David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. I am a longtime reader of conservative writer David Brooks. His creative, searching, and intelligent writing earns my admiration. On a recent road trip, I heard Brooks interviewed on his new and, arguably, most personal book for a Barnes & Noble podcast. Watch or listen to Brooks who appeared as a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Conversations.


  • Oscar Wilde, The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888).The Victorian writer authored two collections of fairy tales. I held a summer seminar on his first collection. Every story has the same heartbeat: what ails human beings is our profound selfishness and what heals us is conformity to the self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. See my document with seminar questions and take-aways for each of the five tales.
  • Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). I will re-read the assigned summer book for 12th grade English.
  • Christopher L. Heuertz, The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth. This title is the common reading for our upper school students. Heuertz shares his perspective on Typology, a podcast hosted by Ian Morgan Cron, author of a bestselling book, The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery. 

One book for every life

In Katharine Smyth’s new book, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, which is part memoir and part literary criticism, she writes:

Perhaps there is one book for every life.

One book with the power to reflect and illuminate that life; one book that will forever inform how we navigate the little strip of time we are given, while also helping us to clarify and catch hold of its most vital moments. For me, that book is To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf’s novel about her parents, Julia and Leslie Stephen, who died when Virginia was thirteen and twenty-two, respectively. First published in 1927, it tells the story of the Ramseys, a family of ten who, along with an assorted group of friends, spends the summer on a remote island in the Hebrides. Tells the story of the Ramsays? I should rephrase: To the Lighthouse tells the story of everything. 

QUESTION: What is the book for your life, the one with “the power to reflect and illuminate” it, one that will forever inform how you “navigate the little strip of time [you] are given, while also helping [you] to clarify and catch hold of its most vital moments”?

On reading well

On Reading WellKaren Swallow Prior, English Professor at Liberty University and author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos), writes in her Christianity Today article, “Good Books Make Better People”:

The word virtue simply means excellence. A virtuous person is someone of excellent character. Reading virtuously, or with excellence, means putting into reading all that it demands so that you can harvest the fruit it is designed to yield.

Reading is inherently virtuous. Consider the fact that Christianity is a religion of the word, a faith centered on words and, ultimately, the Word itself. From the inscription of God’s will in stone at Mt. Sinai to the God-breathed inspiration of the Bible’s 66 books (which include numerous literary genres, from poetry to epistles, from history to prophecy), Christianity places primacy on reading—and reading well. Indeed, the widespread literacy of the modern world was a gift from Christianity; followers of Christ wanted to spread the Word of God by teaching as many people as possible to read it.

Now, centuries later, in the midst of what many cultural critics describe as a post-literate age, the major questions we face in both the church and our nation center on reading: How do we read Scripture? How do we read the Constitution?

Two inseparable disciplines are at the heart of virtuous reading: the straightforward task of comprehending the words on the page and the more complicated project of judiciously interpreting their meaning, both within and beyond the text.

Reading well isn’t just a virtuous activity in itself. It can also help cultivate other virtues. Consider what reading requires of the body and the mind: stillness, rest, reflection, focus, attentiveness. It’s easy to imagine how luxurious and indulgent such an activity was hundreds of years ago, when life, for most people, revolved around long hours of hard, physical labor. Yet even as life has become more sedentary in the 21st century, our lives are anything but quiet and focused. So even today the very act of reading helps moderate the excesses that characterize much of modern life. And this is the essence of virtue in traditional thought: It is the mean between an excess and a deficiency, or the moderation between two extremes.

In a world rife with choice, where so many activities compete for our attention, the simple decision to set aside time to read requires a kind of temperance. If, like me, you have lived long enough to have experienced life—and reading—before the internet, perhaps you now, again like me, find your attention span shortened and your ability to sit and read for long stretches diminished. Researchers have studied the disruptive, fragmentary, and addictive nature of our digitized world—the demands of its dinging, beeping, and flashing devices—and cataloged its dangerous effects on our minds. As Nicholas Carr explains in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, “the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.” Our brains work one way when trained to read in logical, linear patterns, and another way when continually bouncing from tweet to tweet, picture to picture, and screen to screen.

To read virtuously is to rebel against this chaos. Above all, reading well requires reading closely: being faithful to both text and context, interpreting accurately and insightfully. The attentiveness necessary for deep reading—the kind we practice in reading literary works as opposed to skimming news stories or social media posts—requires patience. Careful interpretation and evaluation require prudence. To practice any of these skills is to cultivate the virtues they demand.

On human nature

9780691183039_0“There is an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth,” according to “the words of the Quester, David’s son and king in Jerusalem” (Eccles. 3:1, 1:1, MSG). For a reader, there is a right time for reading by whim and another for reading by design. My opportunity to review Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons by Rowan Williams, the Anglican theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury, motivated me to follow up with another book on the same topic, On Human Nature by English philosopher Roger Scruton. England is blessed with these contemporary thinkers, who cogently defend, against the hegemonic paradigm of materialism, the human being as a unique animal — different not in degree but in kind because of personhood. “We are animals certainly,” says Scruton, “but we are also incarnate persons, with cognitive capacities that are not shared by other animals and which endow us with an entirely distinctive emotional life — one dependent on self-conscious thought processes that are unique to our kind.” Both Williams and Scruton insist that persons are embedded in relationships. “I am, and I have value, because I am seen by and engaged with love — ideally, the love we experience humanly and socially, but, beyond and behind this, always and unconditionally the love of God. And the service of others’ rights or dignity is, in this perspective, simply the search to echo this permanent attitude of love, attention, respect, which the Creator gives to what is made,” Williams writes.

I will let my review of Being Human speak for itselfFor this blog post, I will share the ingenious analogy that Scruton devises to illustrate how personhood is “an emergent entity, rooted in the human being but belonging to another order of explanation than that explored by biology.”

Mona Lisa

When painters apply paint to canvas they create physical objects by purely physical means. Any such object is composed of areas and lines of paint, arranged on a surface that we can regard, for the sake of argument, as two-dimensional. When we look at the surface of the painting, we see those areas and lines of paint and also the surface that contains them. But that is not all we see. We also see — for example — a face that looks out at us with smiling eyes. In one sense the face is the property of the canvas, over and above the blobs of paint; for you can observe the blobs and not the see the face, and vice versa. And the face is really there: someone who does not see it is not seeing correctly. On the other hand, there is a sense in which the face is not an additional property of the canvas, over and above the lines and blobs. For as soon as the lines and blobs are there, so is the face. Nothing more needs to be added in order to generate the face – and if nothing more needs to be added, the face is surely nothing more. Moreover, every process that produces just these blobs of paint, arranged in just this way, will produce just this face – even if the artist is unaware of the face. (Imagine how you would design a machine for producing Mona Lisas.)

* * *

The personal eludes biology in just the way that the face in the picture eludes the theory of pigments. The personal is not an addition to the biological: it emerges from it, in something like the way the face emerges from the colored patches on a canvas.

As much as I admire the rigor of Scruton’s philosophy on human nature, I must admit, after reading his book, that Williams’ theological philosophy is far more satisfying, as he suggests: “When it comes to personal reality the language of theology is possibly the only way to speak well of our sense of who we are and what our humanity is like — to speak well of ourselves as expecting relationship, as expecting difference, as expecting death. (And, of course, for Christians and people in other faith traditions, expecting rather more than death as well.)”

The lasting vitality of ‘Mere Christianity’

9780691153735In my theology class, we begin with C. S. Lewis’ classic work of apologetics, Mere Christianity (1952). To supplement this primary source, I read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity: A Biography by the historian George Marsden, which belongs to a fantastic series from Princeton University Press called “Lives of Great Religious Books.” “Though there have been analyses of Mere Christianity before, none has been so comprehensive or serious as this one,” says C. S. Lewis scholar Michael Ward. “Marsden has subjected Lewis’s book to an assessment more searching and satisfying than anything so far in print.”

In Chapter 7 “Critiques,” Marsden writes:

Wherever Mere Christianity has been read, it has been hated as well as loved. Nonetheless, as a popular presentation of the faith it has drawn less systematic criticism than would a book that purported to be a definitive treatise on Christian apologetics and theology. Literary scholar Margaret P. Hannay summarized the mix of attitudes well in 1981, noting that Lewis’s Mere Christianity is “the most popular the most disparaged of his works, probably because its fans have spoken of it as a profound piece of theology, while it is, as was designed to be, only a primer.” Hannay adds that “anyone ignorant of Christian doctrine can learn much from it, but anyone seriously interested in theology must go beyond it, reading both Lewis’s sources, the patristic writers like St. Augustine and St. Athanasius, and more contemporary theologians. But the very simplicity of Mere Christianity makes it likely to endure.”

 In Chapter 8 “The Lasting Vitality of Mere Christianity,” Marsden offers seven perceptive answers to the question, “Why has it not faded in the way almost every other nonfiction book of the 1940s and 1950s has?” Each one of these answers is developed in the book.

  1. Lewis looks for timeless truths as opposed to the culturally bound.
  2. He uses common human nature as the point of contact with his audiences.
  3. Lewis sees reason in the context of experience, affections, and imagination.
  4. He is a poet at heart, using metaphor and the art of meaning in a universe that is alive.
  5. Lewis’s book is about “mere Christianity.”
  6. Mere Christianity does not offer cheap grace.
  7. The lasting appeal of Mere Christianity is based on the luminosity of the Gospel message itself.

Three steps to recovering our stolen identity in Christ

In the introduction for Identity Theft: Reclaiming the Truth of Who We Are in Christ, Melissa Kruger, an author, speaker, and editor for The Gospel Coalition, writes:

imagesAt some point or another, we’ve probably all assumed an identity not our own. [. . .] The problem arises when we dress ourselves up with counterfeit identities and wear them on a regular basis. We believe we aren’t enough, so we find ways to make ourselves appear better. [. . .] There’s also the opposite reality that someone may attempt to steal our identity. [. . .] Sometimes we knowingly live duplicate lives: we act one way with one group of people and quite differently with another group. Other times, we put on a pleasant Christian exterior, but inside we’re angry, bitter, and boiling over with frustration at God and others. We’re also prone to becoming victims of identity theft in a spiritual sense: the Devil seeks to steal, kill, and destroy us with his lies and accusations.

Our three enemies – the world, the flesh, and the Devil – all seek to discourage and dishearten us from living in the fulness of who we are in Christ. The world wants to conform us into its mold, our flesh craves self-glory, and Satan reminds us of past sins and present failings in an attempt to paralyze our faith. [. . .] It’s a struggle to remember who we are in Christ. We need a biblical understanding of identity to guard our hearts and minds as we seek to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.

To answer the question, “Who does the Bible tell me I am in Christ?“, Kruger and the other contributors in the book consider a three-step process that I want to remember:

  • Identity theft: Expose our false notions of identity.
  • Identity truth: Understand the biblical truth of our identity in Christ.
  • Identity transformed: Reflect on what it looks like to live in our new (and true) identity.

In his Christianity Today review of the book, Louis Markos writes: “While most of us would like to jump ahead to the transformation part, we cannot assume our true and full identity in Christ before first seeing through the false identity thrust upon us by society and then searching the Scriptures to determine what exactly it is that Christ desires to do in and through us.”

QUESTIONS: What are your false identities? Who do you understand yourself to be in Christ?

On biblio-friendship

Houghton_STC_13185_-_Temple,_Sacred_Poems.jpgIn my vocation with books, I devised a strategy of reading after my transformative education at St. John’s College, which facilitated an intimate encounter between reader and author, an encounter that crossed time and culture: listen for the resonant voices. The idea originates from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “The Over-Soul“:

O, believe, as thou livest, that every sound that is spoken over the round world, which thou oughtest to hear, will vibrate on thine ear! Every proverb, every book, every byword that belongs to thee for aid or comfort, shall surely come home through open or winding passages. Every friend whom not thy fantastic will, but the great and tender heart in thee craveth, shall lock thee in his embrace. And this, because the heart in thee is the heart of all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one.

A resonant voice is “spoken over the round world” but comes “home through open or winding passages.” It is a voice that I ought to hear, that belongs to me, that vibrates on my ear, consoling me when I am downtrodden and guiding me when I am lost. It is a voice of inexhaustible pleasure and needful wisdom, never flattened by the tyranny of time or the vicissitudes of life. It is a voice that treats my dark inertia, risks my securities, heals my hidden wounds, deepens my faith, awakens my somnolent imagination, expands my imperfect sympathies, and shapes my “final vocabulary.”

I am developing another strategy to read, which dovetails with the previous one: befriend a few authors. This strategy is inspired by a favorite biblical proverb: “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (18:24). Just as there are welcome but formidable challenges in knowing a human being and his story well, there are also similar challenges in knowing an author and his work well. To enjoy the fruit of a deep friendship, we must be selective, even jealous for our beloved. Ruin happens when we multiply companions, whether of the flesh-and-blood variety or the cover-and-pages variety. According to the proverb, we should distinguish between friends, whose bond runs deeper than blood, and acquaintances, who can be impressively likable but not lovable and knowable.

To get a better sense of what I have in mind when we name our friends who stick closer than a brother, consider what John Piper and Mark Jordan say below about the rewards of biblio-friendship in their theological schooling.

From John Piper, “A Personal Encounter with Jonathan Edwards” in The Reformed Journal:

When I was in seminary, a wise professor [Lewis B. Smedes] told me that besides the Bible I should choose one great theologian and apply myself throughout life to understanding and mastering his thought. This way I would sink at least one shaft deep into reality, rather than always dabbling on the surface of things. I might, in time, become this man’s peer and know at least one system with which to bring other ideas into fruitful dialogue. It was good advice. The theologian I have devoted myself to is Jonathan Edwards.

From “Formation, Exile, and Encounter: Teaching Traditions for an Open Body” by Mark Jordan in The Open Body: Essays in Anglican Ecclesiology, edited by Zachary Guiliano & Charles M. Stang:

Reading a complex theological text over decades is powerful education. I recommend to my fellow students that they apprentice themselves to a single, embracing author for as long as they can sustain the practice – for their whole lives, if possible. The aim is not to master a system for everything, but rather to relinquish the fantasy of system. A student of theology ought to treasure the capacious inherited texts, not because they contain all truth, but because they are self-critical examples of teaching and so give practice in how to open tradition, how to leave behind cramped articulations of it that set themselves up as the official story (p. 23).

When I evaluate my own personal canon, I realize it has become unwieldy. I am at risk of “always dabbling on the surface of things.” It is even more excruciating to ponder a list of works rather than authors. As much as I am loathe to cut anyone from this list, are some of them acquaintances rather than friends? Will my life afford me the time and leisure to know them all well?

If I can only be apprentices to a few authors, then for poetry, I am bonded to George Herbert, John Milton, and Robert Frost; for philosophy, Aristotle and Soren Kierkegaard; for theology, St. Augustine and C. S. Lewis; for fiction, Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Willa Cather, and Flannery O’Connor. Note that I have tried to follow Lewis’ sage advice to leaven our diet of reading new books with old ones:

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

I would be remiss if I did not say that “people of the Book” – a now erstwhile epithet for Jews and Christians – ought to be apprentices of the living and active Word of God, which is “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

On building a library


This is one of my favorite home libraries because of its diverse geometry, its blend of a traditional and modern aesthetic, its masculine appeal, and its complementary color scheme of blue and orange. The paint color reminds me of Gentleman’s Gray by Benjamin Moore: “Formal and masculine, this blackened blue leans toward classic navy, suggesting beautifully tailored suits and traditional pea coasts” (Source: Cory Connor Designs)

My intellectual awakening occurred in high school, owing to some gifted teachers. To feed my appetite for learning, I obtained books. During and immediately after college, I added titles to my library at an alarming rate, making it impossible to read everything. Now, as I get older, I regard myself as the curator of my beloved library rather than an acquisitor. Philosopher James K. A. Smith’s words below ring true to my experience, giving me peace with the prospect of unread books when I die:

A young man builds his library in hope. Each paperback treasure is acquired as an act of aspiration. A library is an image of the man he hopes to be: the canon he constructs is a standard of what he thinks he ought to know. It grows quickly, in unexpected ways, exceeding his attention. But there will always be more time to read, right?

A middle-aged man tends his library with a more sombre aspect. Reshelving a book unfinished is one more failure, a door one closes perhaps never to return. When I put The Noise of Time back on the shelf, I recall all the places Barnes has accompanied me on this adventure. But I see some of his novels still unread and wonder if I’ll ever get back to this corner of the library. In fact, it was Barnes who gave me a word for this: le réveil mortel—the wake-up call of mortality. Who knew tidying your library could be such an existential risk?

At some point you realize: I will die with books unread on my shelf. So be it. The grass withers, the flowers fade, the pages become mildewed and musty. So too will I. Even those unread books are a sign of aspiration, ambition, hope. I’ll die reading. I trust there are libraries in the kingdom.

Source: “Mortality and My Library” (Fors Clavigera)


On book reviewing

Since I have written published book reviews, I was interested in this article from the Harvard Review Online.

On December 6, 1990, Harvard professor and eminent literary critic Helen Vendler gave a talk on book reviewing. Somehow the text of this talk found its way into a copy of Erato/Harvard Book Review, where it was discovered twenty-six years later by a Harvard Review staff member who was packing up boxes to send to the University Archives. We are delighted to be able to share these notes and hope you enjoy Professor Vendler’s insights into the duties of a book reviewer.

Writing a book review is a difficult task: it requires us to describe an object that is invisible, to recreate it for someone who has never seen it.

Who is the reader of a review? It is someone coming for the first time to a work—often a work that no one knows very much about. The reviewer needs to know something about the readers: are they experts in the field, interested amateurs, the general public that doesn’t know much about the field or the particular work? Am I writing for my optometrist, my dentist, my taxi driver? What can I assume about them? What do they need to know in order to read my review? One can think about two classes of readers: those who read the review because they think they will want to read the book, and those who read the review because they know they won’t want to read it. Reviewers must be mindful of both groups as they write.

Reviewers are responsible for selecting the important elements of a book and explaining their importance. Though they must be as inclusive as possible, reviewers must learn not to report everything; they must compress. Deftness will help—the insertion of a qualifying phrase, an aside, will set the scene or reveal a trait of character. Try to tuck things into the body of the review; use lists if they will help. Try reducing chapters, even whole books, to a sentence. Then take that reduced statement and decide how to expand it. Remember that publishers set a page limit, and use that limit to help yourself select the central issue, the significant details, the quotations. The first draft is almost always too long; learn to cut without destroying the work.

Where to begin the review: in the Garden of Eden, the English Civil War, or the first lines of Paradise Lost? “Where do you put in your wedge?” It is useful to think of the development curve of the book. How does it move from A to B, from preface to concluding chapter? Following this curve may help plan the shape of the review.

Reviewers can plot the curve in part by making extracts. Isolate passages that you might want to quote because they illustrate the best and worst characteristics of the book. Compile an anthology, a mini-book. Then reread the quotations. Why did they attract you? What do they illustrate? Which can you use to start the review or to end it? Which will you use to illuminate what points?

What are the desiderata: what would we want or expect to learn from this book? What does the book claim to do? What do we find? Were we disappointed? We can trace for ourselves the curve of expectation and match it to the jagged line of reality, sometimes above, sometimes below that curve. Does the book exceed our expectations or disappoint? Does it make us irritable? How shall we measure or explain the difference between promise and performance?

A review has three main parts: a description of the book, an evaluation, and a defense of the evaluation. Fitting those parts together will vary from review to review.

The first task is to describe, to produce a taxonomy of the book: what kind of book is it? Reviewers should describe the whole and its parts economically. Give readers the big picture, then focus on one piece. Use comparisons and contrasts to give readers a sense of the whole work without describing it in excessive detail. “Unlike Jane Austen, this author …. ”

In most books there’s a slough of despond waiting to trap reviewers: a chapter they don’t want to discuss. (Often this is because the author didn’t much like writing that chapter.) Be fair to the author; recognize the “flabby connective tissue,” but don’t let that weakness overwhelm the book or the review.

Turning to the evaluation of the book, reviewers ask about its context. How does it fit into its era, its nation, the ideological patterns of which it is a witness? Situate the book. How is the topic under discussion seen nowadays; does this book fit the paradigm or does it propose a new model? Ask about its ancestors and about what books it might generate. Books make other books happen. What would we like to see next? What evidence, devices does it use; does it use them well?

These questions reveal the reviewer’s criteria as well as the nature of the book. What framework does the reviewer use to measure the book? What are the standards, the measures by which the curve of expectation was drawn?

There’s one ethical rule for reviewers: read every word, including every footnote, the index, the bibliography, the captions of the pictures. And another rule: don’t review what you don’t feel competent to review.

Writing a book review is like giving oneself a mini-seminar. One has to know an enormous amount about the matter of the book to understand it and be properly critical. Preparing to write is a process of self-education; it involves experience and self-awareness. Critics who are too young haven’t read enough; those who are too old may have lost touch with the center of a generation.

Helen Vendler is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard, where she received her Ph.D. in English and American literature, after completing an undergraduate degree in chemistry at Emmanuel College. She has written books on Yeats, Herbert, Keats, Stevens, Shakespeare, Seamus Heaney, and Emily Dickinson. Her most recent books are The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar; Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries; Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill;and Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. She is a frequent reviewer of poetry in such journals as The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Republic. Her avocational interests include music, painting, and medicine.

Friends as spiritual siblings

Spiritual FriendshipIs it possible to say that two people can be friends if they have never met face to face? If so, then Wesley Hill is a friend of mine. Our correspondence over the years has been maintained ever since we became acquainted over the World Wide Web. What I appreciate about Wesley – the man and the writer, for in him lies no apparent discrepancy – is his courageous vulnerability, aesthetic sensitivity, and spiritual vision, which is both faithful and daring: faithful because it is rooted in what C. S. Lewis called the “Deep Church” and daring because it needfully provokes the languid attitude of the contemporary church toward unmarried Christians, who surely qualify among “the least of these” (Mt. 25:40). I had the honor of reviewing his first book, Washed and Waiting, for Christianity Today. His latest book, Spiritual Friendship, follows the trajectory that began in the aforementioned title. He is asking the kind of questions on friendship that have haunted me for years. Although some answers may not be within reach, I am compelled to live these questions with the hope that I may find myself, however gradually,  inside the answers.

 Should we think of friendship as based, above all, on personal preference? Should we think of it as preserving its voluntary character and thereby vulnerable at every point to dissolution if one of the friends grows tired of or burdened by the relationship? Should we consider friendship as always freshly chosen but never incurring any substantial obligations or entailing any unbreakable bonds? Or should we instead—pursuing a rather different line of thought—consider friendship more along the lines of how we think of marriage? Should we begin to imagine friendship as more stable, permanent, and binding than we often do? Should we, in short, think of our friends more like siblings we’re stuck with, like it or not, than like our acquaintances? Should we begin to consider at least some of our friends as, in large measure, tantamount to family? And if so, what needs to change about the way we approach it and seek to maintain it?

Download an excerpt. Read a review by Tim Challies.

Wesley Hill on “Spiritual Friendship” at Biola University Chapel (November 5, 2013)

Additional Resources