As those who follow this column know, I usually review books of particular interest to those in campus ministry. We in the CCO are quite intentional about using books as Kingdom resources and always and everywhere resolve to engage students with the mind of Christ (and invite them to live their lives--from residence halls to lecture halls--accordingly). Obviously, we take seriously what Richard Foster has insisted is the "discipline of study,"Â and hopefully, the books I regularly recommend here are helpful for the professional development of the campus worker.
This time, however, I want to tell of some titles that I have personally enjoyed in the last few months. These are not necessarily essential reading for all--like, say, the new James Sire, the old Ron Sider or the ever-present Walsh & Middleton--but just some writing that has struck me as extraordinary. And has blessed me.
Obviously, my dad's death in a violent car wreck six months ago has been the defining event of my recent life. Good books about grief abound, but interestingly, I could read none of them. I am grateful--and there is a big lesson here!--that I read such books before I needed them. Having books such as Gerald Sittser's A Grace Disguised, Phil Yancey's Where Is God When It Hurts? or Lewis Smedes' How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong? and several other such works "under my belt"Â gave me a certain reservoir of insight at a time when I had no mental focus to read anything at all. (Similarly, the Scriptures provided great comfort and assurance in those first months, although I could not read, but only remember, texts and passages and lines from previous study.) The only book I read for months, actually, was Barbara Brown Taylor's collection of well-crafted sermons on suffering, God In Pain. To this day, I can hardly be more grateful for a book as it has become a cherished friend.
And then another book struck me. On a warm summer Sunday, I started what turned out to be one of the best books I have ever read, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, written by a somewhat lapsed Catholic poet, Thomas Lynch, whose family work is the mortuary business. An eccentric and diverse collection of essays, I wept through much of it, read whole chapters out loud to my wife and put it down on my lap with my heart beating faster out of sheer amazement that anyone could write that well. His very skewed humor leads him to write a hilariously weird satire on turning golf courses into cemeteries and another which morbidly complains (in great detail) about Dr. Kevorkian stealing his business of cleaning up the gore after messy suicides. (His Catholic sensibilities about the right to a decent death makes him righteously anti-euthanasia.)
These peculiar chapters are brilliant and insightful and a perverse treat to read, but it is his more serious ones about the need for good grieving, meaningful mourning ceremonies and the profound significance of the funeral business that blew me away. If mortuary sciences were a more prevalent major at our schools, I'd say get this guy to Jubilee asap; like a good Jubilee seminar leader, he has thought long and hard about the meaning of his work and is clear that it is a service, a ministry. (We're each going to face the death of our loved ones sooner or later, so maybe we should get him anyway.) The Undertaking is truly a work of art, a collection of essays ostensibly about undertaking, but really about death--and ultimately about a life well lived.
The new hardcover sequel, Bodies in Motion and At Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality is equally as good. (Just the title gives hints at his playful and wise use of words.) The introduction is oddly a lengthy piece on why there are four gospels, a matter which seems to hold great interest to him as a writer. A chapter about his alcoholism, divorce and the eventual realization that his teenaged son was addicted was as gut-wrenching as anything I think I've ever read. Through it all, he brings together life and death, meaning and ritual, pathos and pathologies, dead people and his daily bread and butter. Believe it or not, it is a wonderful, wonderful, grace-filled book which gave me an odd but certain peace about our family's sorrow.
Another book, entitled Cleaving--a brilliantly and highly-charged narrative of marital strife, co-written by a husband and wife--is one of the more unusual (but again, strangely blessed) books I have ever read. It is somewhat of a follow-up to one of my all-time favorites, Salvation on Sand Mountain. (Long-time readers of this column will recall my utterly rave reviews of that truly amazing book about a New York Times journalist who becomes a Christian while studying Southern Pentecostal snake handlers...and you thought only novels could be that weird!) Apparently, during the time before and after the acclaim of Sand Mountain, Dennis Covington (who spent a stint teaching at Ohio's Oberlin College) and his wife, novelist Vicki Covington, were, shall we say, sexually adventurous. Their telling of their marital shenanigans is not for the faint of heart. Writing back and forth--he does a chapter, she does a chapter--the sordid story of their brokenness and dysfunction, fear and infidelities, emerges in a sad but utterly compelling way. I smacked my hand on my forehead repeatedly as I increasingly cared about this hurting and hurtful pair. How could they be so foolish?
In what can only be described as undeserved grace (is there any other kind?), the Covingtons fought to keep their demons at bay, to repair the hurt their excesses caused and, amazingly, sought to be faithful to their deepest religious impulses to serve others, especially the poor. Indeed, they were convinced that if their family could do short-term mission work in El Salvador, they could find a degree of hope and healing for their own desperate lives.
And--mystery of mysteries!--the story honestly told in Cleaving embodies the truth which the Barbara Brown Taylor sermons taught and that Thomas Lynch knows: that God's victory comes in suffering and pain. Nothing is ever quite as it seems in this sin-wrecked world. The word "cleaving," it can be noted, has two definitions: to tear apart (like a meat cleaver) and to bring together (like Genesis 2:24). Could it be that in the very sin that drives us apart there can be a basis--grace needed!--that brings us together?
Can essays about funerals and death bring sad souls to life? Can the Holy Creator God be in pain? Can tales of broken lives and marriages give us hope? When I set out to tell you about these marvelous books, I didn't intend a theme. Then again, we don't always end up with what we expect.