The Joy of Summer Reading 

I don’t know what it is about the ocean that is so conducive to reading. I experienced it again this year, returning, as we have for almost four decades to the same barrier island off the coast of North Carolina. Maybe it’s the absence of distraction with the only really necessary activity planning what fresh fish to have for dinner, biking three miles to Captain Pete’s Seafood Market where that day’s catch is arrayed on the counter in gray plastic dish tubs, deciding how much shrimp is required and then what fresh vegetables from the farm stand down the road for accompaniment. In any event it was a banner year.

The critics aren’t sure what to make of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Some have decided that it is not nearly as important as Lee’s bestselling To Kill a Mockingbird. The narrative in this novel occurs two decades after the winsome tale of Scout Finch, her attorney father, Atticus Finch, and a trial with vivid images of the pre-civil rights South. Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus. Watchman takes place when Scout, now in her 20’s, returns home for a visit from Manhattan where she works as a journalist and discovers that her father, and her determined suitor, are deeply racist. Joe Nocera, in the New York Times, thinks the novel was initially rejected by Lee’s editor who sent her back to rewrite the book; the result was Mockingbird. Nocera thinks the decision to publish the book now is simply an effort by Rupert Murdock to fatten the bottom line of his publishing business with an inferior novel by a beloved author, which is certainly happening. Nevertheless, I liked the book, particularly after wading through the stilted, not quite authentic first one hundred pages. I appreciated Lee’s enlightening exegesis of polite, socially accepted racism, and the complex thinking of people torn between their better impulses and loyalty to community. The issue has just surfaced again with the news of racial violence in Charleston and the Confederate flag controversy. Not far from where I am writing there are houses and pickup trucks proudly displaying it.

In his 2014 book, Reality/Grief/Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, Walter Brueggemann brings his deep scholarship together with his equally deep commitment to Social Justice. The book creatively compares ancient Israel’s certainty, pre-587 BCE., that choseness guaranteed safety and prosperity, with America’s pre- 9/11, and current, certainty and confidence in our exceptionalism. The parallels are startling, with both cultures forced to face a new reality and to grieve monumental loss. Brueggemann skillfully shows how the prophets of Israel articulated the movement from new reality to lament and grief and finally, in the soaring rhetoric of Second Isaiah, to hope. But hope comes only after the painful necessity of facing the new reality, working through the inevitable denial, and grieving the loss. Hope comes with the realization that the community will live on, but with a new and different future. Walter Brueggemann is our prophet, urging the church to see its mission in similar terms and promising that to get to hope means the painful relinquishment of the exceptionalism that is central to our nation and its politics and politicians. The first Republican debate is this evening and American Exceptionalism will be on the docket, I am sure.

I picked up Kent Haruf’s small and elegant Our Souls at Night at 7:30 a.m., sat down in a rocking chair with the first coffee of the morning, and didn’t move for two hours. I was stunned and moved. How did he do that? How did he once again create such winsome characters with whom I fell in love? How did he so gracefully and effortlessly address such big, complicated human issues in the context of such honest human relationships: grief, isolation, loneliness, hunger, love, happiness? Set in Holt, Colorado, the small town that is the setting for Haruf’s three prior novels: Benediction, Eventide and Plainsong, Our Souls at Night is not overtly theological. The church is there peripherally. But Haruf’s characters are almost icons of Christian spirituality. They are, with a few exceptions, humble, honest, vulnerable, self-effacing, courageous and loving. Two elderly people, widow and widower, neighbors for years, find each other in their loneliness, defy the conventional mores of their rural community and discover a sweetly innocent intimacy, until traditional morality interrupts. This is a simply wonderful book, the capstone to a distinguished literary career. Kent Haruf died last year at the age of seventy-one.

For pure pleasure I recommend Eric Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania and David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers. Both authors are careful researchers, distinguished historians and consummate story tellers. On May 7, 1915, a German submarine torpedoed the majestic British passenger ship, Lusitania, off the coast of Ireland. Among the casualties were families with small children, wealthy Americans including Alfred Vanderbilt, and the event became part of the impetus for the United States to enter the war two years later. On the 100th anniversary of the event Larson has produced a superb book, weaving together several fascinating narratives. I couldn’t put this book down.

Two-time Pulitzer prize winner David McCullough has chronicled a truly transformative time and event in American and world history. Wilbur and Orville Wright, modest but brilliant bicycle mechanics in turn-of-the-century Dayton, Ohio, never went to college but developed the technical knowledge that led them to conclude, as almost no one else did, that flight by a heavier-than-air machine was possible. The brothers chose Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to try their new “Flyer”. The short flight that followed literally changed the world. McCullough’s compelling story follows the Wright Brothers to France, Italy, Germany before belated recognition by the United States government.

The late Granger Westberg, Lutheran pastor, Divinity School professor, author and innovator devoted his life and career to the idea, based on his reading of the Jesus of the New Testament, that the church’s and pastors’ essential mission is healing. From that basis came a new approach to ministry and theological education that focuses on the pastoral care of people. I was privileged to learn from Westberg when he was on the faculty of the Divinty School of the University of Chicago. One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned was the first thing Westberg taught, namely that when a parishioner makes an appointment to see a minister, what he or she wants and needs is not advice but someone to listen. Westberg’s daughters have written a loving biography just published, Gentle Rebel: The Life and Work of Granger Westberg, Pioneer in Whole Person Care, with a Forward by Dr. Timothy Johnson and a concluding interview with Martin Marty.

Comments

  1. Thank you for the reviews. I’m feeling a bit at sea myself, metaphorically, and unable to settle to one particular book. It helps to have new ideas.

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