Magical children, the great soul, and the genius bard of India; dialogues with death and listening to your life; seasonal psalms and a horizon of hope. From India to the afterlife, here are titles 27-33 from my 40th Birthday 40 Books bash.
Part One featured computational musical fantasies as I travelled from toddler to teen. Part Two embraced literary science, spiritual direction, inklings of hell and heaven. Part Three went to the woods and summitted Alps, then journeyed East from Paris to Japan.
Now it’s the boarding call for Part Four. As you queue for x-ray security, note Rushdie’s warning of reading radiation – a book below could spark psychic mutation.
When a reader falls in love with a book, it leaves its essence inside him, like radioactive fallout in an arable field, and after that there are certain crops that will no longer grow in him, while other, stranger, more fantastic growths may occasionally be produced.
Please stow errant thoughts in the overhead lockers and switch off all distracting devices. Buckle your belts as we depart for Bombay.
Book 27. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
In my late teens I romped through the pages of Victorian fiction; as I reconnoitred the East in my mid 30s, I relished the Anglo-Indian Man-Booker winners. Anita Desai (Clear Light of Day), her daughter Kiran Desai (Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard), Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things), and Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance) all cook up marvellous curries that delight the tongue. The spiciest must be Salman Rushdie.
Despite the furore, I find The Satanic Verses (1988) a moving exploration of doubt, faith and identity. Following the fatwa that drove him into hiding, Rushdie wrote the children’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) for his son. The dark Cultmaster, the Archenemy of Language, padlocks books, pollutes the sea of stories, and dulls all tales to uniform greyness, plotting to silence them forever, because within each story is a world he cannot control.
Midnight’s Children (1980), voted the best novel in the Booker Prize’s first 40 years, is an irrepressible technicolour carnival. It echoes Hindu mythology and Bollywood cinematography, detective fiction and fairy tales. The Arabian Nights and Shakespeare mix with advertising jingles and street slang. Jesus has Krishna’s blue skin, and a Superman comic spawns a celebrity guru; in an “eastern Western” movie, a Hindu cowboy defeats cattle ranchers to rescue holy cows. Here’s how the mongrelised mélange begins (ellipses are original):
I was born in the city of Bombay… once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date. I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th 1947. And the time? The time matters too. Well then, at night. No, it’s important to be more… On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out, at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world.
Saleem Sinai was the first of 1001 Midnight’s Children born in the nation’s first hour. Each had a special power such as eating metal, multiplying fish or flying. Saleem was telepathic, and also had “the most delicately-gifted olfactory organ”. As a “lexicographer of the nose”, he sought a general theory of smell classification by colour and weight and shape, before inventing the science of nasal ethics:
A lepidopterist, I snared whiffs like butterflies in the net of my nasal hairs… the glutinous reek of hypocrisy… the heavy but quick-fading perfume of new love… the deeper, longer-lasting pungency of hate… Truth beauty happiness pain: each had its separate fragrance, and could be distinguished by my nose.
Born with the new nation, Saleem was “handcuffed to history”, his family story fused with Gandhi’s assassination and Chinese invasion, war with Pakistan and emergency rule. His tale begins in 1915, when his Muslim grandfather returned from medical studies in Heidelberg and knelt to pray as if nothing had changed, but had “a vacancy in a vital inner chamber”.
He was caught in a strange middle ground, trapped between belief and unbelief… unable to worship a God in whose existence he could not fully disbelieve. Permanent alteration: a hole.
As well as linguistic high jinks and his “chutnification of history”, Rushdie pens some striking descriptions. I love an ancient boatman – “His face was a sculpture of wind on water: ripples made of hide” – on a Kashmir lake in spring:
After a winter’s gestation in its eggshell of ice, the valley had beaked its way out into the open, moist and yellow.
See SparkNotes on Midnight’s Children themes, characters, etc; Rushdie on writing the book, a 1981 review “A Novel of India’s Coming of Age”, all Rushdie news and reviews from the New York Times, or a trailer of the movie.
Book 28. The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi
The Father of India – and all those midnight’s children – was a short skinny man who looked like a sparrow and was as timid as one in his youth, the Mahatma or great soul, Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948). As an introvert myself, I’m encouraged by his example.
My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure… it has taught me the economy of words… silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth… My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. It has helped me in my discernment of truth.
I’ve long admired this shy man’s courage, and his integrity. He read far fewer books than I do, but he put them into practice. To believe in something and not do it, he said, is dishonest. His mystical hunger to see God and his prophetic fight for justice depended on each other – Gandhi refused to separate public and private.
My life is one indivisible whole, and all my activities run into one another… My life is my message.
His autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1925), was partly written in British prisons and covered his life from childhood up to 1920. He tells how he questioned tradition and explored different beliefs, studied law in London and experienced apartheid in South Africa, made “Himalayan blunders”, and formed lasting convictions. Like Newton seeking the laws of physics or Edison inventing the light bulb, Gandhi experimented with self-purification and social policies, truth and nonviolence, in order to find laws of the spirit that could light up the world.
Truth is like a vast tree, which yields more and more fruit, the more you nurture it. The deeper the search in the mine of Truth the richer the discovery of the gems buried there, in the shape of openings for an ever greater variety of service.
Gandhi’s experiments led to his greatest discovery: the power of Christ-like suffering love. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”, but his strategy of satyagraha was different. Your opponent strikes your cheek and you strike back with love, which pierces his armoured heart and reclaims his humanity. Gandhi conquered soul force with brute force; as India tore itself apart in 1947, Lord Mountbatten called Gandhi his “One Man Boundary Force”.
On my Western front, I have 100,000 crack troops and unstoppable bloodshed. On my East I have one old man, and no bloodshed.
Like Francis of Assisi, to whom he is often compared, Gandhi reconciled enemies, embraced untouchables, and flourished in radical simplicity. In 2012, I saw Gandhi’s room in Delhi with all he owned: loincloth, spectacles, sandals and walking stick, a spinning wheel and the Bhagavad-Gita on his mattress. Then I followed the footsteps, set on concrete, of his final walk to prayer where he was gunned down.
In the museum I was moved by a cartoon, where Gandhi addressed his disciple in nonviolence Martin Luther King:
“The odd thing about assassins, Dr King, is that they think they’ve killed you.”
Book 29. Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore
Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
The author, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), was a “myriad-minded man” who translated Macbeth at age 13, published over 40 volumes of essays and composed 2200 songs, including the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. In 1913, he was the first non-European to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, for his “profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse”, expressing “every mood from the longing of the soul after eternity to the joyous merriment prompted by the innocent child at play”.
The award was for Gitanjali or Song Offering (1912), which one reviewer called “the Psalms of a David in our time”. The lyrical poems echo gospel parables – waiting for the king all night, falling asleep and missing his visit – and the aching desire of Solomon’s Songs:
The song that I came to sing remains unsung to this day.
I have spent my days in stringing and in unstringing my instrument.
The time has not come true, the words have not been rightly set; only there is the agony of wishing in my heart.
The blossom has not opened; only the wind is sighing by…
I live in the hope of meeting with him; but this meeting is not yet.
Tagore is a lover of God and nature and humanity. He observes farmers tilling fields and women carrying water, a drowsing shepherd boy and a ragged beggar girl; lamps floating down the stream, cranes flying to mountain nests, and children playing “on the seashore of endless worlds”. When my cousin had her first child, I sent her this verse:
The smile that flickers on baby’s lips when he sleeps — does anybody know where it was born? Yes, there is a rumour that a young pale beam of a crescent moon touched the edge of a vanishing autumn cloud, and there the smile was first born in the dream of a dew-washed morning.
I have got my leave. Bid me farewell, my brothers! I bow to you all and take my departure. Here I give back the keys of my door…
I start on my journey with empty hands and expectant heart.
With his flowing white hair and beard, Tagore looked like an Indian Gandalf, but he wasn’t merely an otherworldly mystic. After the British fired on a peaceful crowd in 1919, Tagore resigned his knighthood and fought for independence alongside Gandhi. Tagore, however, placed a higher value on science, education, and freedom of thought.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls …
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit…
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Book 30. On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Back in New Zealand, I wrote my last university theology essay on death and the meaning of life. For several months in 2008, I was sobered by books like Confrontation with the Reaper and The Last Dance and Vigor Mortis: the end of the death taboo. The most striking were psychologist Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death (1973) and the writings of Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004).
In 1945, Kübler-Ross visited a Nazi death camp and saw that children had drawn butterflies on gas chamber walls. She went on to a career with the terminally ill in America, where nine out of ten doctors resisted her discussing death with their patients. Nevertheless, she interviewed 200 dying patients for her first book, On Death and Dying (1969).
It describes the “stages of grief” she observed in people facing death or bereavement. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Each chapter begins with a verse from Tagore. Many patients arrived at tranquil acceptance, ending their days with gentle grace.
People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.
Kübler-Ross published several more books of interviews and reflections, such as Death: the final stage of growth (1975), that are both painfully poignant and inspiring. She writes, “My patients taught me not how to die, but how to live”, and observes that beautiful people do not just happen: most wise and loving people have known suffering and struggle and loss.
Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.
Kübler-Ross promoted the hospice movement for better treatment of the dying, and urges each of us to contemplate our ultimate loss, in order to richly live:
It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know that you must do… It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth – and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up – that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.
In 2008 I knew little of death. Perhaps my essay was tempting fate. In the following year, great-aunt Maisie died – my last “grandparent”.
In February 2010, my father was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. It was to be 10 months until I experienced the final words from On Death and Dying in the stillness before dawn.
Watching a peaceful death of a human being reminds us of a falling star; one of a million lights in a vast sky that flares up for a brief moment only to disappear…
Read my essay “Dancing with Death and the Meaning of Life”.
Book 31. Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations by Frederick Buechner
One of the thickest folders of author notes in my filing cabinet is for Frederick Buechner. I’ve been tickled and touched by his ABCs like Whistling in the Dark: a Doubter’s Dictionary (1988), with its zany artwork and zippy entries from Alcoholics Anonymous, Algebraic Preaching, Anorexia, Anxiety, and Awe through to X-Rated, Youth, and Zero.
I love Buechner’s sermons that put our unspoken feelings into words – 37 messages are collected in Secrets in the Dark: a Life in Sermons (2006). When preaching myself, I’ve often remembered a passage from Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairytale (1977), where a minister steps into the pulpit:
In the front pews the old ladies turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six-year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker… The vice-president of a bank who twice that week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her… The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher.
Buechner also reminds me that – in the midst of conflicting voices – my true vocation is where I most need to go and where I am most needed:
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
My birthday Buechner book, which he himself recommends for newcomers to his work, is Listening to Your Life (1992), a sampler of excerpts from his talks, novels, and memoirs. The title sums up Buechner’s core message: pay attention to what happens, especially what moves you or brings unexpected tears; keep your ear cocked for God’s elusive voice in the details of your day.
Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.
In the year of Dad’s dying, I reread Buechner’s autobiographical works: The Sacred Journey (1982), Now and Then (1983), Telling Secrets (1991). In The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found (1999), Buechner sits in “The Magic Kingdom”, the library of his country house in Vermont. Rather like I’m doing, he surveys his shelves of books, from the Uncle Wiggly series he collected at six to his textbooks from seminary. On the walls hang photos of his writer heroes like Trollope and Twain.
He reflects on family deaths and his father’s suicide when he was only 10. In a way, Buechner says, his whole life has been a quest for the father he never really knew. This spoke to me. My dad was wise, kind, and quiet, and as the cancer spread I realised how little I knew him. Buechner also says, “Although death ended my father, it has never ended my relationship with my father.” I sometimes sense the same.
In his historical novel Godric (1980, a Pulitzer finalist), Buechner retells the story of a lusty 12th-century hermit-saint. As an old man who’s lost almost everything and is nearing death, Godric expressed Buechner’s own hope.
What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death there ever was set next to life would scarcely fill a cup.
Read an extended Buechner interview, an article on his “Sacred Journey”, a conversation with Buechner, and a further conversation on the gifts of aging. See Buechner Resources Indexed by Scripture or Buechner interviewed by Brueggemann (the author below) in 2013 on YouTube.
Book 32. Spirituality of the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann
The Old Testament scholar who has most nourished my mind and spirit is Walter Brueggemann. His prose sings like a post-modern Psalm, and he challenges unjust pharaohs like a latter-day prophet. He wrestles like Jacob with Israel’s “ambushing lion of a God… wild, dangerous, unfettered, and free… who cannot be harnessed, domesticated, manipulated, or bought off”. Neither, he finds, can Scripture.
Its voice is a haunting one, sounding promises, uttering commands, voicing stories, proclaiming oracles, ejaculating pain, authoring hope… Because of this text, which will not go away or finally keep silent, we live haunted lives, filled with yearning for what is not in hand, promises not yet fulfilled, commands not yet obeyed, desires not yet granted, neighbours not yet loved. The old text becomes new text; old story becomes new song.
Never is the old scroll more new than in Brueggemann’s favourite book of Jeremiah, which “reads like it was written yesterday about our crises”. The impact of 9/11 on America, he says, resembles the fall of Jerusalem in ancient Israel. Both events left inhabitants lost, drifting through the rubble in shock.
Brueggemann’s Spirituality of the Psalms (2002) is a brilliant little guide to how these old poems can voice the pain of loss in a world of denial, and then express hope that the ruins will be rebuilt. He roughly groups many Psalms into three seasons of life that we all experience:
Satisfied seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for the constancy of blessing… ‘Psalms of orientation’ articulate the joy, delight, goodness, coherence, and reliability of God and God’s creation…
Anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering, and death… ‘Psalms of disorientation’ match that season in its ragged, painful disarray…
Turns of surprise when joy breaks through the despair… ‘Psalms of new orientation’ speak boldly about new gift from God, a fresh intrusion that makes all things new.
I shared the Psalms with Dad on his last night, sitting by his bed with his black leather-bound Bible and reading out verses he had underlined. I finished with Psalm 150, which dances with trumpet and flute, lute and harp, timbrel and loud clashing cymbals.
I’m not sure how much Dad could hear by then, though I saw an odd eyelid-flicker. He was a classical music buff so the last thing I said to him on that last night was, “It sounds like a big orchestra Dad. You’ll like that.”
We thank you,
for lyrics that push us past our reasons,
for melodies that break open our givens,
for cadences that locate us home,
beyond all our safe places,
for tones and tunes that open our lives beyond control
and our futures beyond despair.
We thank you for the long parade of mothers and fathers
who have sung you deep and true;
We thank you for the good company
of artists, poets, musicians, cantors, and instruments
that sing for us and with us, toward you.
Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (2003)
Another thoughtful poetic companion has been The Book of Psalms: a Translation with Commentary (2007) by Jewish literary scholar Robert Alter. See the New Yorker review.
See writings, audio and videos at www.walterbrueggemann.com, a 2013 Conversation with Brueggemann, a publisher’s interview on his recent book Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (2014), Brueggemann’s counter-cultural beliefs in 19 Theses, or more Brueggemann prayers based on Psalms.
Book 33. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N. T. Wright
Brueggemann’s New Testament equivalent for soul-stirring insight is for me the Anglican Bishop Tom Wright, whose clear and colourful writing has been likened to C S Lewis. As the shadow of death fell over our family that year, my favourite line in the creed became “I believe in the resurrection of the body” – a key theme in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (2008)
Wright insists that our future is not riding clouds in heaven with a disembodied harp. God plans to renew this whole earth, and Easter was the opening bell.
Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of that new life, the fresh grass growing through the concrete of corruption and decay in the old world.
Wright has a line that fills me with hope: “One day God will do for the whole cosmos what he did for Jesus at Easter.” So every field of tulips or fluttering fantail, every Mozart concerto or van Gogh landscape, every act of kindness or mercy that touches us now, is not destined for the dust, but will be perfected in God’s new creation.
The world is beautiful, not just because it hauntingly reminds us of its creator but also because it is pointing forward: it is designed to be filled, flooded, drenched in God, as a chalice is beautiful, not least because of what we know it is designed to contain or as a violin is beautiful not least because we know the music of which it is capable.
I love Wright’s sense of the interlocking tapestry of ideas, the interweaving currents of images and stories, which span the canvas of Scripture, and he inspires me with its intellectual challenge. Grappling with St Paul’s genius, says Wright, makes him feel like “a middle-aged man in Wellington boots trying to imitate a quicksilver-footed ballet dancer”.
I also appreciate Wright’s prophetic edge. Christians who replace physical resurrection with spiritual rapture, he suggests, seldom still fight injustice. Believers in an escapist heaven seldom pray, “Your kingdom come on earth”. Resurrection is a revolutionary doctrine – he answers the question, “who does not want the dead to be raised?”
Those in power, the social and intellectual tyrants and bullies; the Caesars who would be threatened by a Lord of the world who had defeated the tyrant’s last weapon, death itself; the Herods who would be horrified at the post-mortem validation of the true King of the Jews.
No wonder Surprised by Hope featured in TIME magazine’s 16 April 2012 cover story, “Heaven Can’t Wait: Why rethinking the hereafter could make the world a better place”. Right now, we can start working for God’s new creation, and dancing to its tune.
[Love] is the music God has written for all his creatures to sing, and we are called to learn it and practice it now so as to be ready when the conductor brings down his baton. It is the resurrection life.
My sermon “A Tale of Four Colours: from Creation to the Golden Age” was inspired by Wright’s book.
Wright’s for Everyone Bible Study series are excellent devotional guides to each New Testament book.
ntwrightpage.com has 100s of Wright’s articles, sermons, podcasts, and videos. Interviews about his recent books include Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (2011), How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (2012), and The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential (2013).
Bonus Book: Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church by Phillip Yancey
Journalist Phillip Yancey was raised in a fundamentalist church in the southern states that preached more race hatred than love. In Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church (2001), he profiles 13 individuals who showed him a more grace-filled gospel. These include a nature writer and a Japanese novelist, a child psychologist and a leprosy surgeon, a Jacobean poet and a contemplative Catholic, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Martin Luther King. There are also two of my favourite 40, with comments that I can endorse.
Through Gandhi, I saw that besides founding a church, Jesus set loose a stream of moral authority that releases captives, liberates the oppressed and undermines a violent, competitive world… In an odd sort of way, the impact of his life helped convince me of the truth of the Christian faith.
Buechner became for me a mentor in rediscovering a gospel that had grown all too familiar… I find companionship in Buechner’s writings because for me, too, faith is a Pascalian gamble… Such is the power of his evocation that when he describes his life he may as well be describing my own.
Soul Survivor is like a book-length version of my birthday book posts, and a great way to meet future friends. Of all his books, Yancey says he most enjoyed writing this, because he got to describe his heroes – as I love introducing mine!
See Yancey’s recommended reading list, or reflections on writing, or other articles at www.philipyancey.com; an interview while promoting Soul Survivor or “Sex, Lies, and Life on the Evangelical Edge”.
I hope you’ve had a smooth ride without excessive turbulence, and have fallen for a new author or sexy book that sets your Geiger counter clicking. There are still coming attractions galore in Part Five. Right now, however, having safely landed Flight Four, I’m boarding a plane for Moghul India and Renaissance Italy, piloted once again by Sir Rushdie, with his alluring hostess The Enchantress of Florence (2008).
Birthday Bibliography: Books 27-33
All 40 Birthday Books Posts
- A Reading Life: a 40-year journey through 40 top books – Part 1 - 40 years. 40 books. An enhanced version of my recent birthday speech. Part One chronicles the birth of a young geek: synthesizers and computer games, crime and travel, good news and bad tunes, along with wild things like Aslan, hobbits, and … Continue reading
- A Reading Life: a 40-year journey through 40 top books – Part 2 - Flirting with Dewey and torturing titanium, Platonic lions and Scottish divines, Martian ransom and Florentine epic, Pickwickian perambulations and the road less travelled, a plurality of prayer and contemplative kitchens. All that and more in Part Two of my 40th … Continue reading
- A Reading Life: a 40-year journey through 40 top books – Part 3 - Kiwi bush cartoons, wisdom in lakeside cabins, reflective mountain solitudes; miserable redemption in Paris, mystical research in the East, monastic romance in Kyoto. Part three of my 40th birthday 40 books extravaganza. This follows Part One: Books 1-10 (from toddler … Continue reading
- A Reading Life: a 40-year journey through 40 top books – Part 4 - Magical children, the great soul, and the genius bard of India; dialogues with death and listening to your life; seasonal psalms and a horizon of hope. From India to the afterlife, here are titles 27-33 from my 40th Birthday 40 … Continue reading
- A Reading Life: a 40-year journey through 40 top books – Part 5 - Jewish wisdom and the story of art; novels by a painter-Rabbi, a Vatican correspondent, and a Malaysian lawyer; a world history of language and those who wield it best. From Torah scrolls to Picasso, the Pope to Zen, hieroglyphics to … Continue reading
- Quotes – 15 Top Authors - Quotations from 15 of my favourite authors, selected to share at my 40th birthday party. J R R Tolkien C S Lewis George Macdonald M Scott Peck Richard Foster Robert Farrar Capon Henry David Thoreau Salman Rushdie Mahatma Gandhi Elisabeth Kübler-Ross … Continue reading