Tag Archives: theology


Last summer I read a book called Woman as Force in History. I have an old, worn, paperback edition printed in the 70s (the cover design gives it away), but the book was originally published in 1946. In it, the author, Mary R. Beard, argues that women have always been part of history (the events that actually happen), they are just neglected or forgotten when the stories of what happened were written down. I will probably come back to Mary R. Beard’s views on history later in this alphabet. Today let’s talk about her use of the word FORCE.

As you may or may not recall, my first degree is in engineering. Aerospace engineering even. Rocket Science. This means I did a fair bit of physics, and even taught physics to high school students for a while. I keep finding physics words popping up as I read theology and history. I find I am not particularly fond of the way physics metaphors are slung about in these other disciplines. Beard’s title is my way into this particular rant.

I will concede that Mary R. Beard may not have thought of her phrasing “woman as force” as provocative or even having anything to do with some guy Newton and classical mechanics. She wrote this book in the shadow of the second world war, when forces deployed meant armies and navies and air forces. Air FORCE – that word again. Possibly she meant Woman as Force! to suggest an army of women acting through history. She does not, however, clarify her particular use of the term. I kept thinking of physics and F=ma and W=Fd and vectors. (To translate briefly: Force equals mass multiplied by acceleration and Work done equals force applied multiplied by displacement. One notes that if one combines the two equations, Work=mad. Hmmm.) Beard’s use of the term FORCE was slightly distracting and reminded me of all the other times I’ve seen physics metaphors that don’t quite work when one knows something about the physics.

Other physics concepts that have been more distracting than helpful out of context:

Quantum anything. Most recently, I’ve noticed a book called Paradoxology: Spirituality in a Quantum Universe. This appears (I’ve not read the whole thing) to take up the idea of quanta, discrete bundles of energy, and talk about this idea as if it explained God. The author is a woman of some talent and energy, but I’m not sure why she thinks it necessary to dabble in quantum metaphor, something physicists themselves claim is difficult to understand well. (I had a flashback moment when the author turned out to have written the songs and been part of the nuns singing on “Joy is Like the Rain” one of the few vinyl records available to play at camp when I was growing up.)

Uncertainty, as in the Uncertainty Principle (is the cat there?) or Relativity. These ideas are so often poorly used in general conversation and thought that I hesitate to talk about them here. Please do note that in physics, uncertainty applies at the atomic scale, that is, when things are very very small. Relativity applies when things are moving very very fast, at speeds approaching the speed of light. Despite what the movies say, we don’t know how to travel that quickly.

Centripetal and centrifugal forces. I encountered these two in a book I otherwise liked very much. I tried to find other words to substitute for them to get past the fact that I kept using physics to shoot down the author’s literary arguments because of his poor choice of metaphor. I think his arguments had merit despite the metaphors.

Possibly no one else finds the poor use of physics metaphors distracting. Let me know what you think. I think people should stop using these metaphors unless they know the physics.

May the Force Be With You.

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A Dozen Books of Influence

Karen Swallow Prior recently wrote an article called “Classic literary works to challenge the thinking Christian” in which she lists 12 + 1 (a baker’s dozen) works she recommends because they are challenging but rewarding, and all have helped her “to love the Lord my God with all my soul, all my strength, and all my mind—and to be a better steward of this world in which God has placed us.”

It is a good list. I’ve nothing against Prior’s list. So far I’ve read 2 of her 13, and have at least three others on my shelf. I agree that the list is challenging. I started one of the books she lists, and was not able to go on after about a page. I’ve not had the courage to try again, though everyone raves about Beloved. (Does this count as a true confession? Probably.) Though Prior’s list is good, it isn’t my list. So I’ve come up with a list of my own, not to replace hers, and not with exactly the same criteria. I made a list of books, works of fiction, that have in some way shaped my spiritual life and thinking. Often a particular author has been a spiritual guide in many works, but I have only chosen one work by any author.

Disclaimer: These are all works of fiction, and I don’t think any of them is classified as “Christian Fiction” anywhere. Some come closer to actually being that than others. Just because a novel is on Prior’s list, or on my list, you shouldn’t think it is “safe” or happy-clappy or filled with people going to church. These books gave me some kind of positive spiritual insight, but they are not in the least preachy.

  1. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve set this as an option for an intro to the OT class I taught. I have enjoyed students’ thoughts on this as well, and learned from them.
  2. John Wyndham, The Chrysalids. I’ve also set this for that OT intro class. This has some striking ideas about what it means to be created Imago Dei.
  3. P.D. James, The Children of Men. You may notice a speculative/science fiction bent to this list so far. Yes, that is true. Sometimes by writing about worlds askew somehow from reality, writers are better able to comment on lived reality.
  4. Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion. And a fantasy novel?? Yes. See above remark. Also see the works of C.S. Lewis, who I have not included on this list anywhere.
  5. Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana. More fantasy. Don’t worry, I’ll turn to more “serious” fiction next. If, however, you think that the speculative/science fiction and/or fantasy is less serious than other kinds of fiction, I refer you again to that guy Lewis.
  6. John Grisham, The Last Juror. Yes, this could be classified as genre fiction of a certain kind (Thriller? Mystery?). Grisham is, however, a good story-teller, and his stories can pack a punch. You don’t need to go to the classics for the possibility of life-change.
  7. Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection. At last! A canonical writer! Bet you’ve never heard of this Tolstoy though. You should check it out. It is his last novel.
  8. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. More solid recognized fiction, even recognized as Christian. I read Resurrection and The Power and the Glory this year. The timing was good for me on both of them. If you don’t find them appealing now, try again some other time.
  9. Susan Howatch, Mystical Paths. Again, Howatch’s Church of England series is pretty churchy, but not in a conventional way. I picked this one out of all of them because it was the one that resonated with me most when I read it.
  10. Chaim Potok, In the Beginning. All of Potok’s books belong on this list, as with Howatch above. Let’s just leave it there. With Potok we end the obviously religious books.
  11. Emma Donoghue, Room. This is a life-altering book. I’ve heard lots of people say so. I don’t think anyone who says that has exactly the same experience reading the book. You should try it.
  12. A.S. Byatt, Possession. I debated putting this book on this list. It could also be on a list of books that have influenced my personal life, or resonated with me personally/emotionally/intellectually. It does all those things, but it also has spiritual resonance.

And now the plus one for the baker’s dozen. Ready for it?

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I’ll just leave it there for you to ponder.

What about you? Books that have influenced your spiritual life in some way?

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Third time’s the charm?

I’ve just finished The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. I was about to give up on Greene. I’ve heard lots of good things, but, while his books I read last year in my Reading Older Books project were ok and had memorable moments, I didn’t find them “wow” kind of reading. I had one Greene more to read already in my TBR pile that I’d heard lots of people talk about, but given the description of the story along with my previous experiences, I did not have high hopes.

Instead of disappointing, The Power and the Glory blew me away. It is really good. But, I will qualify that by saying not everyone will like the book. I don’t think I would have liked the book this much had I read it 10 years ago. Sometimes books come along and there’s a synergy with a moment in time in your life. I feel like that might be the case for me and TPatG.

Or maybe having experienced Greene two previous times, I was able to read him better the third time. What’s your favourite Greene book? Maybe I should look for that one next.

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Excursus Sunday

After posting about One, the loneliest number, it appeared that One would be the loneliest blog post. I will pick up the numerical series again, never fear, but first a little theological excursus.

Last Sunday I preached a sermon. You can listen to it online. The main text was Ephesians 4:1-16, and the sermon title was Growing Up Together. In the sermon I suggested that the Ephesians text indicates that spiritual maturity is not an individual thing, but a group thing, a growing up together thing.

Than I read this blog post. The author, apparently theologically astute, represents spiritual maturity as being an individual thing. Yes the local church contributes to an individual’s spiritual maturity, but an individual can out grow a congregation and move on. SO opposite to what I preached. Completely opposed.

We have to get over being church consumers and start getting the idea that we ARE the Church. Now I’m not saying that there are times when God is calling us to move local churches — but to see this as a spiritual maturity thing does not, it seems, line up with Ephesians 4. And to church-hop without plugging in and deeply contributing to a local congregation does not line up with Ephesians 4. Possibly the spiritual immaturity of the North American Church comes from this sort of attitude.

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XYZ, Now I know my ABCs

OK, I’ve been trying to work out how to do X, which might explain why I’ve taken so long to post. The other reason for the posting delay is the decision I made to update my operating system. That always takes way more time than you think it will, then you have to get new muscle memory on where things are and which way to swipe and all that stuff. It is a process and a half.

Enough about operating systems and on to the matter at hand: concluding the alphabet.

X – I have no authors at all in my database under X. None. Zero. Zilch. There aren’t even a whole lot of words beginning with X. The Constant Reader may here remind me of xylophones, but I’ve little to say about xylophones. Do YOU know any X-authors? Do let me know if you have encountered any. I’m curious.

Y, I’ve got no problem with Y, so on we go to Y, the problem-free letter, the letter with an embarrassment of riches, where I have to choose between two worthy women authors. Wait. I don’t have to chose, I’ll have one of the Y-authors stand in for the lack of an X author. Yes. Sometimes I’m brilliant. (Also humble. And, I hope you realize, not very serious.)

Yfloralis for Yonge, Charlotte M. Yonge, author of The Heir of Redcliffe. I read The Heir of Redcliffe because someone recommended it to me. It was the first of the nineteenth-century women writers on specifically religious subjects that I read. This was, however, before I began my research on 19th-century women who interpreted the Bible. Yonge is one of those women, but I read this book before all that really started. Also, after I read Yonge, I re-read Little Women, and behold! Jo reads The Heir of Redcliffe in Little Women! Literary referencing in the nineteenth century! Excitement! Connections! Hurrah! I like connections. You should read The Heir of Redcliffe for insight into the century. I should revisit it as I’m sure I will understand it differently now.

Y is also for Yust, Karen Marie Yust, author of Taught By God, a book that does a great job helping people think through how the history of Christian education can inform current practice. I sort of fan-girled Dr. Yust at a Large Academic Conference last November. I think she was startled to have me rush up and enthuse about TBG. Oh well. I do like it. You should read it.

And so to Z. I’ve one author, J. Peter Zane, in my database in the Z-section. J. Peter doesn’t make the cut for this blog post because he’s a guy. There are women whose surnames begin with Z, but I’ve not read them. Have you? Any recommendations?


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You may think I have not posted for a few days because the letter U undid me. But I am not undone. Things did not get ugly. I have a U-author who meets all the criteria for inclusion in this Alphabetical List.

Ulionis for Underhill, Evelyn Underhill.

Underhill was a spiritual writer. Mysticism (1911) is a seminal work in the study of mystics and mysticism. Underhill also wrote poetry, novels, and biographies. The biographies she wrote are of mystics, which is not surprising given her interest in the topic. Evelyn Underhill qualifies for this list because I’ve read her (she’s the only u-author I’ve read), she’s a woman, and she’s not well-known and deserves more interest. You should find her stuff and read it. Don’t start with Mysticism, that’s a bit much. I’ve not read Worship but am intrigued by what she’d have to say on that important subject. Mystics of the Church is an accessible way into some of Underhill’s work. Check her out. See what you think.


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Tricky T

T is Tricky. There are almost too many choices for a T-woman author. I might have to go with two or three even. I’ve written about three nineteenth-century women who are T-authors! There we are, Three Ts from The Women.

Tcelticis for Trimmer, Tonna, and Tucker.

I wrote my dissertation on Sarah Trimmer. If you are interested and are connected with a university library, you can download the dissertation as a pdf from the UMich online dissertations website. Please excuse the egregious error of fact where I get Trimmer’s birthdate wrong in the first chapter. She was born 6 January. I think I have 20 January or some such thing. Ergh. Anyhow, Trimmer. She wrote lots of books in the late eighteenth century on teaching the Bible to children in various settings. She also wrote a story about talking birds called Fabulous Histories. She’s a big deal in my humble opinion. Of course I think she’s a big deal. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on her.

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna wrote using the name Charlotte Elizabeth. She was deaf. She lived in Canada for two years. She wrote books about women, the Irish, and the Bible. I’m still trying to parse her theology. She had an interesting life and was very opinionated. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote an introduction to an American edition of Tonna’s collected works, so she was widely read. Interesting, interesting, interesting.

Charlotte M. Tucker wrote under the pseudonym A Lady Of England (A.L.O.E.). She also visited Canada, including Niagara Falls. After her father’s death, she went out to India to live and do mission. Tucker also writes interesting books that teach the Bible to children.

Women! Writing on the Bible! Theology! History! Isn’t it exciting?


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The Sunday Excursus

On Sundays I’ve been taking a little break from the Alphabet series. I’ve heard from some readers who mentioned that they appreciate the series very much. Thanks! But I’m pretty sure we can all use a small break on a weekly basis.

This week’s rabbit-trail takes us past some graffiti/urban art that I particularly like. I was thinking about why I like this wall so much as the subway went past it this morning, then as I walked from the subway station toward the parking lot next to the wall. It hit me on the station platform. I see the glory of God reflected in this wall, particularly the two parts of the wall shown here:

Keele Stn both

Really? I hear you saying. The Glory of God? C’mon. Yes, the Glory of God.  I’m pretty sure that is not what the artist’s intended, but that is, I think, what I particularly like about them. The bottom one has a cubist feel to it. Here is a closer shot:

cubist grafPart of that glory thing might come from the smokey thing that ties together parts of the wall. I’ve avoided showing the large old man with a beard and a book also on this wall lest you think that he represents God to me. No. He does not. But this part of the wall next to the Keele Station parking lot reflects this:

Psalm 104

Lord my God, you are very great;
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent
    and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind.
He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
32 he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.

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L lives in your neighbourhood

L is just around the corner, the nice bit of the neighbourhood, the place you like to hang out.

Loldis for Local, local authors whose last names begin with L.

L is for Leddy, Mary Jo Leddy, an author who wrote about the neighbourhood where I lived for five years in Radical Gratitude. Mary Jo Leddy also teaches at the Toronto School of Theology, a place where I’ve been known to give a course or two.

L is also for Landsberg, Michele Landsberg, best known locally as a journalist and feminist. I really enjoyed her book Reading for the Love of It, and at first did not associate the author of that book with the newspaper columnist. Then I realized they were the same person! Landsberg has written other books that I think would be interesting to read, particularly the memoir of the time her husband was the Canadian ambassador to the US. (Landsberg’s husband is Stephen Lewis. One of their sons is Avi Lewis, who is married to Naomi Klein. Imagine family dinners at their house.)

Finally, a little further afield, L is for Little, Jean Little, an author who lives in Guelph, which is sort of near Toronto. Little writes mostly children’s books. I quite enjoyed her autobiography, Little by Little. I read more of Little when I was young, before I started obsessively writing down books read. In keeping with the theme of local non-fiction, though, I do recommend Little by Little. You should check it out.


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J is a Joker

J is an odd character – a joker, certainly, but is J just a funny guy? Don’t jokers have something sinister about them? See Batman if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Also see Alice in Wonderland. Thus, the letter

J oldletter

is for James. P.D. James that is, or Baroness James of Holland Park to be perfectly correct about the whole thing.

P.D. James writes mostly mysteries featuring the poetic policeman Adam Dalgliesh. (No, I don’t know how to properly say his name. This meant I didn’t read James for a while because I didn’t know what to call this character in my head. I’ve got some sounds in my head now when I look at the name, but am quite certain I’ve made them up and they are not correct.) The crime in the mysteries are a part of the sinister aspect of James. The other sinister aspect comes in what I consider her best work, The Children of Men, a novel set in a future in which humans have not been able to reproduce for 25 years. That is all I’m going to tell you about The Children of Men, except to say that you should go and read it immediately. If you saw the movie, purge that immediately from your mind. Read the book. I want to assign this book for courses on children’s ministry I may teach in the future. It would be one of the first books assigned. Read it and see if you can figure out why.

The fun part of P.D. James comes with Death Comes to Pemberley. Yes, that’s Pemberley as in Mr. Darcy’s lovely house in Pride and Prejudice. James is an Austen fan, and writes a fantastic fanfic follow up to Pride and Prejudice with a murder happening at Pemberley. It is brilliant and fun and you should just go and read it. I had a discussion with my Orthodox colleague who doesn’t think she can bring herself to read Death Comes to Pemberley because she feels it violates Miss Austen’s work. While I can see where she’s coming from a little, it is P.D. James, and she has done a marvelous job of helping us step into an extended version of Jane Austen’s world.

On a completely different note, today J also stands for Justine, as in Justine Dufour-Lapointe, gold medal women’s moguls for Canada! And she stands on the podium with her sister, Chloe Dufour-Lapointe, silver medallist! #WeAreWinter.


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