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Bites of the Best Books: January 2021

This month, passages on rebirth, the pursuit of utopia, why we are commanded to honor parents, the importance of welcoming a God who can contradict us, and the need to embrace interfaith solidarity.

Each month Public Square writer Sammy Hislop recommends five books to our readers, in the spirit of D&C 88:188 “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom.” We hope you’ll find these as inspiring as we have.

Symposium

Plato

The excerpt below (given in the voice of the woman Diotima, in conversation with Socrates) is a fitting thought for a new year and fresh beginnings.

“Even while each living thing is said to be alive and to be the same—as a person is said to be the same from childhood till he turns into an old man—even then he never consists of the same things, though he is called the same, but he is always being renewed and in other respects passing away, in his hair and flesh and bones and blood and his entire body. And it’s not just in his body, but in his soul, too, for none of his manners, customs, opinions, desires, pleasures, pains, or fears ever remains the same, but some are coming to be in him well others are passing away. And what is still far stranger than that is that not only does one branch of knowledge come to be in us while another passes away and that we are never the same even in respect of our knowledge, but that each single piece of knowledge has the same fate. For what we call studying exists because knowledge is leaving us, because forgetting is the departure of knowledge, while studying puts back a fresh memory in place of what went away, thereby preserving a piece of knowledge, so that it seems to be the same. And in that way everything mortal is preserved … because what is departing and aging leaves behind something new, something such as it had been. By this device, Socrates, what is mortal shares in immortality, whether it is a body or anything else, while the immortal has another way. So don’t be surprised if everything naturally values its own offspring, because it is for the sake of immortality that everything shows this zeal, which is Love.”

Mother

Maxim Gorky

This 1906 novel is about the Russian working class’s struggle to overcome tsarist oppression. The English translation from Isidor Schneider is full of arresting and elegant prose. No surprise—Gorky was a five-time candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.

The most moving passages show a bitterly oppressed working class in pursuit of a Zion-like society, where poverty is eradicated and love and unity reign.

A Ukrainian character explains this vision early in the book:

“You know, sometimes you have a wonderful feeling living in your heart. It seems to you that wherever you go, all men are comrades; all burn with one and the same fire; all are merry; all are good. Without words they all understand one another; and no one wants to hinder or insult the other. No one feels the need of it. All live in unison, but each heart sings its own song. And the songs flow like brooks into one stream, welling into a huge river of bright joys, rolling free and wide down its course. And when you think that this will be—that it cannot help being if we so wish it—then the wonderstruck heart melts with joy. You feel like weeping—you feel so happy.”

The unfortunate irony is that these revolutionaries think their end (an appropriate one) justifies any means. They thirst for the blood and suffering of their oppressors. The Mother, the protagonist for whom the novel is named, seems to understand at the end of the book (and of her life) that such vengeance will not bring peace. As she is being choked to death by the police for her efforts to call out corruption, she says to those whose hands are at her throat, “You will not drown the truth in seas of blood. You poor, sorry creatures—”

Gilead

Marilynne Robinson

In this fictional letter from a dying Congregationalist minister (the Rev. John Ames) to his 7-year-old son, one encounters meaningful and memorable theological asides.

On doubt and using one’s mind: “I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and the walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.”

On visions and revelation: “Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time. For example, whenever I take a child into my arms to be baptized, I am, so to speak, comprehended in the experience more fully, having seen more of life, knowing better what it means to affirm the sacredness of the human creature. I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect. That’s the pulpit speaking, but it’s telling the truth.” 

On honoring parents and the fifth commandment: “There is a pattern in these Commandments setting things apart so that their holiness will be perceived. Every day is holy, but the Sabbath is set apart so that the holiness of time can be experienced. Every human being is worthy of honor, but the conscious discipline of honor is learned from this setting apart of the mother and father, who usually labor and are heavy-laden, and may be cranky or stingy or ignorant or overbearing. Believe me, I know this can be a hard Commandment to keep. But I believe also that the rewards of obedience are great, because at the root of real honor is always the sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object. In the particular instance of your mother, I know that if you are attentive to her in this way, you will find a very great loveliness in her. When you love someone to the degree you love her, you see her as God sees her, and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and of being itself. That is why the Fifth Commandment belongs on the first tablet. I have persuaded myself of it.”

The Reason for God

Timothy Keller

What are the dangers of not taking scripture seriously? Of seeing it as culturally obsolete or rejecting its claims? 

“If you don’t trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking,” Keller writes, “how could you ever have a personal relationship with God? In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you. For example, if a wife is not allowed to contradict her husband, they won’t have an intimate relationship. Remember the (two!) movies The Stepford Wives?  The husbands of Stepford, Connecticut, decide to have their wives turned into robots who never cross the wills of their husbands. A Stepford wife was wonderfully compliant and beautiful, but no one would describe such a marriage as intimate or personal. 

“Now,” Keller continues, “what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You won’t! You’ll have a Stepford God! A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction. Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination. So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it.”

Mere Christianity

C.S. Lewis

The introduction to this Christian classic contains a most profound statement on interfaith solidarity. The world is like a house, with many rooms of religion. Some of us remain in the halls, unsure of which door to open. We yearn to enter the rooms, where we find fires and chairs and meals. 

“It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference,” Lewis writes, “but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling. In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?’

“When you have reached your own room,” he says of Christians, “be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.”

About the author

Samuel B. Hislop

Samuel B. Hislop is a writer in Utah.
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