On the Shelf
How many gadgets are de rigueur these days? I’m considering upgrading from my “dumb phone” to a smart phone, and I’m tempted to try an e-reader. At the same time, I’m troubled by the unspoken reality: we gadget people are an elite minority, a society of first-world people who have access to a network and its benefits that others don’t have. Or do we really believe that the entire world will soon be “like us,” connected into one happy progressively social network?
The other day on St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis embraced a man suffering from a disfiguring disease called neurofibromatosis, which causes tumors to grow all over the skin. The pope’s action had a stunning, parable-like clarity, evoking Gospel stories of Jesus reaching out to the sick and marginalized.
When her publisher scheduled Chicago as a stop on her book tour, Anne Lamott asked that the reading be held at Broadway United Methodist Church. She’s worshiped there in the past and feels at home.
In The Sea and the Mirror, W.H. Auden audaciously wrote new poems in the voices of each character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, all set after the action of the play concludes. The result is a work both wonderfully reverent and plainly modern—you might even call it modern in its reverence. I would have hoped that anyone presuming to put out a book called A New New Testament would borrow Auden’s approach and give us a genuine literary and theological invention.
My Lenten practice has almost involved some kind of endurance. As a child I usually gave up something like chocolate or sweets. My practice evolved into committing to walk to the grocery store or buy nothing but food or, one year, give up plastic. But regardless of what I took on or gave up, I have always intended for this to last through all of Lent. The practice ends—or finds a new form—at Holy Week, and the endurance test ends with it. This year, Lent has an entirely different rhythm for me—because of a book by writer and Benedictine oblate Paula Huston.
“Anyone who reads independently and spiritedly is going to carry an eclectic canon around in his head,” writes Christian Wiman. “That is half the fun of it all.” For the past five years or so, I have had the responsibility of coming up with the novels to put on the Century’s list of Christmas picks for fiction. At first I was baffled by this job. Did I have to read every new book?
By now, we are all familiar with what liberation theology and Catholic social teaching have called the Bible’s “preferential option for the poor.” But what about a biblical preferential option for the rebel? In a new book by biblical scholar Yoram Hazony called The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture—which I learned about from Jonathan Yudelman’s review—the story of Cain and Abel receives a reading different from any I have heard.
I have lately been reading stories of the desert monastics, collected by the monk John Moschos in the seventh century. I don’t think I get it. My pattern has been to feel slightly offended—sometimes even disgusted—by a story, and then walk away from it, wander around for awhile and finally realize that the story was probably a joke. In its own context, the main thing it elicited was probably laughter. But for me the humor is so strange, so wry, so unexpected that I don’t perceive it for hours.
Last spring I visited the Paris exhibition Cranach in His Time, where I was introduced to a sampling of Lucas Cranach Sr.’s diverse and sometimes puzzling range of work. Cranach (1472–1553) produced more than 1,500 paintings, not to mention engravings, decorative work and altarpieces. I began my tour with his portrait of the powerful and shrewd Frederick the Wise, who was Saxon’s ruling elector, Cranach’s patron and Luther’s protector. A little further on I studied a portrait of Luther, Cranach’s friend and partner, painted as a nonthreatening monk—an effort to persuade his critics that he was not dangerous.