Category Archives: On the Bookshelf

Making Rounds with Oscar

When somebody may be suffering from Alzheimer’s,  neurologists and geriatricians administer certain cognitive tests.  Some of these tests are devastatingly simple.  One such test asks  the patient to draw a clock face when the time is 2:45.  People with Alzheimer’s are very likely to draw a clock with the short hand on 2 and the long hand between 4 and 5.

I learned this in a remarkable little book.  Making Rounds with Oscar (Hyperion 2010) was written by David Dosa, a geriatrician who works in a nursing home in Rhode Island.   Oscar is a tabby cat who also works in the nursing home. . . a resident companion animal along with several other animals and birds.  (Enlightened nursing home!)  Oscar has a unique talent.   He knows when somebody is dying.  He  goes and stays with them until the end, whether they are all alone or surrounded by grief-stricken loved ones.

This is a helpful, healing book about Alzheimer’s,  the end of life, and the mysterious connections between people and pets.  The savory irony is that Dr. Dosa is not a cat person.   He never gets to the point of doting on  Oscar – but he comes to respect the reality of the comfort Oscar brings to the dying and their loved ones.

Recommended.

brave new word

From an article in usatoday.com: a prediction that academic libraries will soon have less to do with curating physical materials, and more and more to do with digital resources; that e-books and e-journals are poised to turn librarians into e-sherpas; and that instead of being ensconced at the traditional Reference Desk, librarians will be embedded in academic departments.  And that these embedded librarians will be (in fact at Johns Hopkins University Medical library, they already are) called informationists.

The Lord of the Hallows

I love Interlibrary Loan.  It’s such a fine way to read books that my own Library doesn’t have, including obscure, scarce, or expensive titles and ones that for other reasons I’m just not in a position to buy.  Today I’m returning an Inter-Library Loan that I enjoyed very much – The Lord of the Hallows by Denise Roper (Denver:  Outskirts Press 2009.) It’s a compact  and insightful summation of the Christian symbolism in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.  That the series is loaded with  Christian symbolism was blazingly obvious by the climax of the seventh book .  Roper places the Harry Potter books  in the tradition of  Christian fantastic novels that includes Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia.   Recommended!

old India cookbook

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, I ran across a new edition of a classic cookbook written for British housewives in 19th-century India. Remarkable book.  It covers cooking, housekeeping, gardening, animal husbandry, and relations with native servants.  It throws light (some of it glaring in retrospect)  on the relationship between colonial England and colonized India.  There is solid practical advice, such as the recommendation to English wives to spend the hottest months in the hills rather than stick it out on the plains and end up so debilitated that it then becomes necessary to spend several years recuperating in England.  There’s a chapter on the special challenges of running a missionary household or living in a camp.  And there are recipes for making English food in India, and descriptions of Indian foods and ingredients.  The book is:

The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook by Flora Annie Steel & Grace Gardiner, ed. Ralph Crane and Anna Johnston, Oxford University Press 2010.


Jesus and Christ

Philip Pullman – author of the fabulously written, famously antireligious Dark Materials fantasy trilogy – is at it again.  According to an NPR interview, his latest novel was inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury asking him where Jesus fit into the Dark Materials world. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ posits Jesus of Nazareth having a psychologically disturbed twin brother named Christ.  The storyline plays on the inconsistencies of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus.

It sounds a bit silly to me.  Progressive Christian theology distinguishes between Jesus and Christ with the phrase “Jesus the Christ.”  Jesus was a human being, the Christ is the salvific, revelatory presence of God unveiled by a human life.  Progressive Christians tend to be comfortable with the idea of more than one Christ in history, in the world, and most certainly in art and fiction.  Woman Christ?  Oh yes, see the feminist sculpture Christa by Edwina Sandya, or  read Elizabeth Moon’s fantasy novel Deed of Paksenarrion. Wizard Christ?! Harry Potter.  Google “Christ Figure” in Wikipedia and check the notes under Literature for a fascinating remark: that generally in literature (many examples listed), Christ figures stop at being martyred and don’t get as far as resurrection.   Paksenarrion and Harry do get resurrected.  So does the extraterrestrial Christ, E.T. in the movie.  Offhand I’d say that convincingly resurrecting a Christ figure is, in terms of storycraft, quite a challenge.

In Pullman’s new book the resurrection is a fraud perpetrated by the twin brother, Christ.

Well, intellectually honest theologians, intelligent believers, and Christian agnostics (of whom there are many, and some of them write novels) have grappled for a long, long time with the original incredibleness of the Gospel, the devastating imperfection of the Church, the inconsistency of the Bible, and the darkness of the human unconscious.   One of the first theologians to recognize the deep waters below the conscious mind was Martin Luther in the 1500’s. WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE!! is hardly a newsflash.

On the other hand, Philip Pullman does what he’s doing very well, and faith is well served by brilliant honest skepticism.  It can clear out mindless weediness and rank undergrowth.  One of the most amazing anti-religious tales ever written is Olaf Stapleton’s classic Star Maker. That novel alone, taken with the seriousness it deserves,  destroys the credibility of  God the Supreme Being in our day.

Theologian Paul Tillich’s God Beyond God and God the Ground of Being held up to the 20th Century a lot better than orthodoxy’s  Supreme Being or the Watchmaker of Deism.  Process Theology has held up too.  Liberation Theology brewed in the 20th Century, proclaiming God’s “preferential option for the poor” and stirring the pot of the Roman Catholic Church.  One thing critics like Pullman may miss – understandably, if they decamped from organized religion at an early age – is the extend of the prophetic, i.e., critical and reformational, tradition, in religion.  And the mystical undercurrents.  Christian mystics across the centuries called God  shining darkness, mystery that terrifies and fascinates, lover of souls,  cloud of unknowing, and on and on, images and stories that didn’t square with Church doctrine and sometimes got the mystics into trouble.

My copy of the Dark Materials trilogy was a gift from a Roman Catholic priest who valued its message against the worst perversions of organized religion. This priest – since deceased and celebrated by a funeral Mass that drew in all sorts of friends and clergy – knew well that Church and Christ are not coextensive.   He also knew how mystical and prophetic movements always bubble up in organized religion and are never welcome there.

The mystics experienced God in ways that doctrine made little or  no allowance for.  Reformation happened because Luther saw the Church in dire need of reforming from the top down.  And then there was the real Jesus of Nazareth.  Believe me, many intellectually honest theologians, seminary professors, and Biblical scholars and historians have studied the words and works of Jesus to learn what he really said and meant.  Much of the best scholarship points to this:  with his parables and his paradoxical sayings wasn’t spelling out what people should think about God.  He was dislodging God from the mental and cultural boxes in which the idea of God was contained.  And he was freeing people from mind-bending, heart-breaking condictions imposed by religious authorities.  Which is, to say the least, work that forever needs doing.