Posted in Robert Farrar Capon, The Mystery of Christ

Our New Read: The Mystery of Christ

The full title of our next book is The Mystery of Christ and Why We Don’t Get It.   In this Book Robert Farrar Capon delves into the meaning of salvation, grace and redemption.  He does this in a conversational style, and the various chapters consist of recreations of meetings he has had with people he has counseled, a Sunday School class, his wife, parishoners, and an encounter at a cocktail party. 

If you have read anything by Capon before, you know that for him grace triumphs over everything else.  Further, Christianity is not a system whereby we make ourselves good enough to be saved from an angry God bent on our destruction, rather it is the acceptance of and the living out in our lives that in Christ all our sins have been cancelled and marked" “paid in full.” 

Capon covers a wide range of topics in this book, including guilt, forgiveness, love and romance, grief, the incarnation, reincarnation and resurrection.  So while this book is certainly not a novel, as the other books we have read have been, it is one that any Christian should read.  And I would add that many non-Christians would find in its pages a unique and interesting take on the gospel that the church is called to proclaim but seldom does.

Some of what Capon tries to achieve in this book is summarized by this exchange with Tim Brassell (the full interview can be found here).

Tim Brassell: Can a pastor take grace too far?

Robert Capon: No. A pastor can’t take grace too far. That is, not unless he claims that sin doesn’t matter. If he claims that, he’s abusing grace, because sin does matter. It matters to me, the sinner. It matters whether I leave myself stuck in it.

Suppose a mother has a kid who comes in all muddy. She just washes off the mud. She loves her child and doesn’t wait to see whether the kid decides if he wants to live with mud all over him. She just washes it off. And if she is a faithful, true mother, she will continually take that mud into herself and say, "Well, this is my son, and I will stick with him."

TB: Mothers are like that.

RC: Yes. The point is that sin is mud. It’s a cover-up or cover-over of your true being as a person. And Jesus has washed it away. He’s erased the sins. He’s washed them away.

Not all churches practice infant baptism, but infant baptism is a wonderful testament to absolute grace. It says, "It’s done." It doesn’t say, after this if you do something, then you’ll be OK. It says, "You’re OK now," not because you did something or thought something or figured something out, but you’re OK now because Jesus says so.

It isn’t religion that makes you OK with God, it’s God who does it. The sacraments are not religion. They do not cause something to happen. You don’t change the wine in the Eucharist into the blood of Christ, the presence of Christ. You just put up a sign in which you say, he is present in this sign as he is present in all things, including me.

For example, a priest in my jurisdiction holds up the bread and wine before communion and says, "Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world." That means that the whole world is changed, changed by Christ.

TB: Some people say that if you preach grace a lot, people will get the idea that they can go ahead and sin all they want and still be saved. What would you say about that?

RC: First of all, I would say they’re perfectly free to sin all they want whether you give them permission or not. But the thing that they are not free to achieve on their own is their own forgiveness, and that is what is already done. They simply have to accept that in Jesus, God has forgiven their sins.

You can purchase an inexpensive copy of The Mystery of Christ here on Amazon.  In a week of so, I will be posting some questions for your consideration and discussion (either with yourself or a group of friends).  I hope you will join us in reading this fine work.

To close this post, here are some snippets from reviewers on the Amazon site. First a couple of positive ones:

If such concepts as "Both heaven and hell are populated with forgiven sinners", "God isn’t in the sin-prevention business….He is in the sin-forgiving business", and "the argument between Cheap Grace and Costly Grace is ridiculous, because Grace is FREE", are intriguing to you, then get and read this book. It is a thought provoking delight!


I read this for the first time shortly after becoming a Christian. Earlier, I thought Christianity meant constantly avoiding sin. Capon points out that we will always sin, but the Good News is that God loves us anyway. He emphasizes love and hope, and does not waste energy on the little questions. And he exhorts us also to remember that we do not need to waste our energy on the little questions, but to instead remember Jesus’ commandment to love God, ourselves, and each other. This book increased my new-found joy in knowing God’s love.

And now a couple of negative ones:

Robert Capon is a dedicated thinker, but he is a bit too cute to get to some real meat of the thought problem. The book did nothing to answer some of the theological questions that I have as a Christian of strong faith but still one with many questions. He provides little reasoning or rationale, just an admonition that faith and belief is all that is required. Christ is a mystery so leave it there and just believe! Just don’t think to heavily.


When I was just starting out in my new Christian faith I stumbled onto Robert Capon’s writings, including this book. Perhaps it was providential, because the insanity of his theology mirrors that of Luther, and it drove me into the arms of the Roman Catholic Church. This stuff is Luther’s inconsistent, confused take on the Gospel, carried to its logical conclusion. Luther denied the value of human works and efforts to do good in the economy of salvation, and so does Capon. They both trample roughshod over the Epistle of St James, not to mention the Gospels and the Epistles of St. Paul. Capon extracts the teaching on the necessity of faith for salvation, from its context in all of the New Testament, and, like a follower of Luther anxious to push the boundaries even further, makes even the act of faith "trash". Yes, that’s in this book.

This variety of opinion kind of makes you want to read the book yourself to see what these folks are talking about, doesn’t it?  I hope so.


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Posted in discussion, Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

Into the Wild

pic9 Matthew Power, writing in Men’s Journal, gives a perfect introduction to this story of of adventure, discovery, alienation, and eventually death:

It was a haunting tale, capturing the imagination of the country. September 1992, deep in the bush of the Alaskan interior northeast of Mount McKinley, in an abandoned bus on a disused mining trail, the decomposed body of a man was found by a moose hunter. The remains weighed only 67 pounds, and he had apparently died of starvation. He carried no identification, but a few rolls of undeveloped film and a cryptic journal chronicled a horrifying descent into sickness and slow death after 112 days alone in the wilderness. When the man’s identity was established, the puzzle only deepened. His name was Chris McCandless, a 24-year-old honors graduate, star athlete, and beloved brother and son from a wealthy but dysfunctional East Coast family. With a head full of Jack London and Thoreau, McCandless rechristened himself “Alexander Supertramp,” cut all ties with his family, gave his trust fund to charity, and embarked on a two-year odyssey that brought him to Alaska, that mystic repository of American notions of wilderness, a blank spot on the map where he could test the limits of his wits and endurance. Setting off with little more than a .22 caliber rifle and a 10-pound bag of rice, McCandless hoped to find his true self by renouncing society and living off the land. But, as Craig Medred would note in the Anchorage Daily News, “the Alaska wilderness is a good place to test yourself. The Alaska wilderness is a bad place to find yourself.” No one ever saw McCandless alive again. Fifteen years later his story continues to resonate as a quintessentially American tale, and its hero has assumed near mythic status, blurring the lines between living memory and the creation of a legend.

After reading the book and reflecting upon it, I have not even begun to make up my mind about who Chris McCandless was, why he did what he did, and what forces drove him to completely separate himself from his family and past.  At times I found myself admiring his willingness to get up and actually walk away from a life that seemed to him to be filled with hypocrisy and lies, but at other points in the narrative, McCandless was absolutely infuriating.  His inability or simple unwillingness to forgive his father for his faults and failings (after all, nothing his father did ever actually affected him directly) struck me as hypocritical as his father’s actions, especially when he seemed so accepting of other’s faults.  And besides, who among us come from perfect families?  I know I don’t, and even though the love for my family is great, I have seen all to clearly their imperfections, especially as far as my own father is concerned.  And yet I cannot imagine totally separating myself from everyone who loves me.  In this regard, McCandless strikes me as simply childish, arrogant, self-righteous and selfish.

Finally, it is clear that Krakauer, as he himself states, is not an objective observer when it comes to McCandless.  Krakauer sees in Chris a kindred spirit, and while that in itself is not a bad thing, I believe it causes him to gloss over McCandless’ own faults.  I, for one, feel that Krakauer’s lack of objectivity causes him to ignore the very real possibility that Chris may have been adversely affected by an undiagnosed mental condition.  Of course, others see something quite different, including Paul at The Other Side of Awesome, who has written:

What’s never mentioned in the book, nor is ever intimated by Chris himself, is the striking parallels between the life Chris led and the one Jesus told his followers to lead. He sold or gave away all his belongings, lived amongst the fringe and outcast, and wandered about the country, eventually dying in the wilderness whilst on the same type of spiritual pilgrimage that Jesus himself went on. Whether he meant to or not, he lived the authentic Christian life. I wonder how things would’ve turned out for him had he lived.

Initial Questions for Discussion

1. In the article The Cult of Chris McCandless found in Men’s Journal (cited above), there is this quote:

Carlson, a barrel-chested Athabascan who worked as a tribal liaison on the shoot, shows me around the bus. He chuckles through a handlebar mustache and offers an unburnished appraisal of McCandless: Another fool bit the dust. “We grew up here. You learn how to make a campfire when you’re a kid. This, I didn’t think much of it at the time. That kid’s mistakes started a long time before he got here.” 

What mistakes, if any, did Chris make before going to Alaska?

2. What do think caused Chris to embark on his journey?

3. In a review of the book by Library Journal (found here), one complaint about it was that Krakauer “never satisfactorily answers the question of whether McCandless was a noble, if misguided, idealist or a reckless narcissist who brought pain to his family.”  Which, in your opinion, was he?  Was he both?

4. As I stated above, and as Krakauer himself noted in his book, there is a notable lack of objectivity in Krakauer’s writing.  Do you feel that this adds or detracts from the book itself?  Why or why not?

5.  What do you think of Krakauer’s insertion of himself into the narrative?  Did it add or detract from Chris’ story?  Did it help you understand Chris’ own motives?

6. What do you make of this quote and Westerberg’s assessment of Chris?

“‘You could tell right away that Alex was intelligent,’ Westerberg reflects, draining his third drink. ‘He read a lot. Used a lot of big words. I think maybe part of what got him into trouble was that he did too much thinking. Sometimes he tried too hard to make sense of the world, to figure out why people were bad to each other so often.”

7.  One Alaskan Park Ranger has made some comparisons between himself and Chris.  He wrote:

Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide while I apprenticed myself to a career and a life that I wanted more badly than I can possibly describe in so short an essay. In the end I believe that the difference between us was that I wanted to live and Chris McCandless wanted to die (whether he realized it or not). The fact that he died in a compelling way doesn’t change that outcome. He might have made it work if he had respected the wilderness he was purported to have loved. But it is my belief that surviving in the wilderness is not what he had in mind.

I did not start this essay to trash poor Chris McCandless. Not intentionally. It is sad that the boy had to die. The tragedy is that McCandless more than likely was suffering from mental illness and didn’t have to end his life the way he did. The fact that he chose Alaska’s wildlands to do it in speaks more to the fact that it makes a good story than to the fact that McCandless was heroic or somehow extraordinary. In the end, he was sadly ordinary in his disrespect for the land, the animals, the history, and the self-sufficiency ethos of Alaska, the Last Frontier.

Do you feel that McCandless was either mentally ill or suicidal?

8.  What do you think of the comparison made above by Paul that Chris and Christ were kindred spirit?

9. How do view and interpret this quote from Chris:

So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.

10. What significance, if any, do you attach to the note Chris left in the margins of Dr. Zhivago:  “Happiness only real when shared” as he neared the end of his life?

11.  The original article for Outside by Krakauer was titled “Death of an Innocent.”  In his book Krakauer tells of Chris’ discovery of his father’s infidelity in Chapter 12, which begins with a quote from GK Chesterton: “For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”  Who are the guilty parties, if anyone, in this tale?  What is the proper response for the guilty ones:  justice or mercy?

Into The Wild photo file2 12.  And finally, how, if at all, does this quote from Thoreau’s book Walden fit in with the life of Chris McCandless?

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

More Discussion Questions

Here you will find some very good and in-depth questions from The New Humanities Reader

Click here for more discussion questions for Into the Wild

Click here for discussion questions from a website on male spirituality.

Additional Articles for Reading

Julie R. Neidlinger, Co-author of The Librarium, has posted about Into the Wild on her own blog at Lone  You can read what she wrote by clicking on the links below:

Re-Run: Into the wild, even when you can’t.


Into the Wild (April 2007)

Into the Wild (July 2007)

More Articles for Reading

Death of an Innocent – The original article Krakauer wrote for Outside Magazine.

Into the Wild Debunked – This article specifically deals with the cause of Chris McCandless’ death.

One very negative reaction to the film version of Into the Wild.

Click here for a web page that has an essay by students who visited McCandless’s death site.


Posted in Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

Get a Free Copy of “The Man Who Was Thursday”

If you want to read our current selection, The Man Who Was Thursday, but don’t have the money to purchase a copy, then I have some good news for you.   You can download a free copy of this novel (as well as many other works no longer copyright-protected from The Project Gutenberg by clicking here.  This novel can also be found at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library here.

Now you have no excuse to not read and join in the discussion of this great work by G. K. Chesterton.

Posted in allegory, Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

February 2007: The Man Who Was Thursday

The next book choice for the Librarium is G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. The subtitle to this book, which is A Nightmare, gives only the slightest hint at the strange twists and turns that Chesterton takes the reader through until coming to a conclusion that seems to have come out of nowhere.

I don’t want to use the word allegory or any such nonsense. All I can say about this book is that Chesterton has a way of making a seemingly simple and poetic period detective story and turning it into a kind of treatise on creation (and more).

I recommend reading the introduction to the book. In the right-hand column of the page for the book, you’ll find a treasury of essays and critiques written on the novel, ranging from the early 1900’s and on. I would recommend, however, reading the actual book first to avoid spoilers.

Other related Links:

Discussion questions (provided by the Modern Library edition):

  • What is the Council’s objective throughout the book? Do you think it ultimately represents Good or Evil? Is such a distinction possible, in Chesterton’s view?
  • Discuss the Council’s role as a secret society. What is important about their ability to function as a group and their determination to keep their activities secret? What is the point of their conspiracy?
  • What is the meaning of the book’s title? Is personal identity less important than collective identity, in Chesterton’s view? Does Syme, in effect, lose his identity? What does he gain?
  • Who, or what, does Sunday represent?
Posted in A Prayer for the Dying, Stewart O'Nan

Discussion Starters for A Prayer for the Dying

As I reflected on the book and some of the reviews and interviews I read about it, these are the questions that come to my mind.  If anyone has more to add, please do. – Will

1)  A Prayer for the Dying uses as it’s epigraph a quote from Albert Camus: “There is no escape in a time of plague. We must choose to either love or to hate God.”  How does A Prayer for the Dying illustrate this quote?  Do you believe that Camus is correct in presenting the choice we must make in such stark terms?


2) Richard Eder, in his review of A Prayer for the Dying, writes:

[Jacob Hanson, the protagonist] is, he tells us, the town sheriff. He is the minister. He is the undertaker.

This wacky accumulation expresses his obsession: Out of the destruction of the war, when God seemed to have vanished, Jacob is determined to reinvent Him. He cares for his town as God is supposed to care for the world: He punishes transgressions, provides faith for the living and passage for the dead. “Credo quia absurdum” — the classic religious formula of, roughly, “I believe even to absurdity” — becomes, as horrors multiply, its own horror: I believe right on into madness.

What are your feelings about Jacob’s descent into madness?  When did you first recognize that all was not well with him?  Can religious belief become absurd, and do you see evidence of Eder’s contention above in the book?  And, can religious faith not only descend into absurdity, but even madness?


3) Eder also goes on to state, “Clinging to his faith, Jacob disputes it as well. Here is one of his tortured arguments with himself:

” ‘It’s not right,’ you say.

“Who are you angry with?

“Not God

“No? Who else is there? Is this the devil’s work?

“It must be, you think, but uncertainly.”

Eder concludes with, “It is the problem of belief: how to reconcile God with evil. O’Nan carries it further. In Jacob he has the believer, torn. He has God, as well: struggling in despair with the same problem.”

I know that a book discussion forum is too limiting a place for a full expose on the problem of God and evil, but what does O’Nan say about this problem in A Prayer for the Dying


4) Patrick McGrath in his review in the NY Times reminds us of O’Nan’s use of the second person singular and present tense in his writing: 

O’Nan has employed a surprising but ultimately successful narrative technique for Jacob’s story: it is told throughout in the second-person singular and the present tense. Thus Jacob’s references to himself as ”you” have a self-distancing effect; it is as if he doesn’t fully occupy his own being and observes himself from some other place. He is both in his own experience and outside of it. This is a fine perspective for a narrator who will be forced to move from the orderly, predictable contentment of his life in a placid 19th-century farm town to confront the appalling prospect of chaos and destruction as the people around him sicken and die and the brush fires advance ever closer.

Stewart O’Nan once said

“I mean, I could’ve written, I think, Prayer for the Dying, in first person but it probably wouldn’t work nearly as well. This particular character has this overdeveloped sort of superego and it’s always sort of accusing him. No matter how well he’s doing it’s always sort of saying, “You’re screwing up, you’re screwing up, even though he wants to be this perfect, blameless person, so it fits him perfectly.” 

In another interview, O’Nan says:

For A Prayer I needed an intimate narrator capable of fairly hiding things from the reader. So I knew it had to be a first- or second-person, because a third- who’s unreliable is kind of cheating. I tried the first, and it was too close. I was reading Robert O’Connor’s Buffalo Soldiers, written in the second person, and noticed how the voice scourged its owner, tapping him on the shoulder whenever he’s doing wrong, like a conscience or superego. It’s the same use of the second as in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City, or Charles Johnson’s story “Moving Pictures.” And I thought: what effect would that scourging, nagging, blaming voice have if it were inside a man doing everything he could to prevent a terrible, unavoidable catastrophe? Especially a man who loves his town and feels responsible for everything and everyone. And as I wrote further into the story, I noticed that the voice would veer close to Jacob and then stand apart from him, accusing, and that it worked to highlight that gothic split in him of the strange and troubled private side and the solid and responsible public side. The hidden vs. the seen. And it also works as that ceaseless voice in the head of a mad person, the voice that won’t leave him alone.

Did you find this narrative technique to be successful or off-putting?  Did it take a while for you to settle into the book because of O’Nan’s style here?


5)  Mark Winegardner, writing for Barnes and Noble, says:

When I finished Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying . . . I called him. I told him how jealous I was that he’d been able to write such a large-vision book in such a svelte (190-page) package. Flannery O’Connor was right: A good man is hard to find, when what’s meant by “good” is moral and not civil, when it refers to something larger than likability. What O’Nan does in this book — create a convincingly good man and put him in the middle of his story — is among the toughest acts a novelist can perform.

Given some of his actions in the story, Is Jacob Hanson a good man?  Is he a moral man?  Does Hanson believe, as one reviewer has stated, “that the calamity is all his fault.”  Is it even possible to be a good man in a time of madness.


6) In the first chapter we find this bit of dialogue:

“In Heaven you forget everything,” she says. “In Hell they make you remember.”

No, you think, it’s the other way around. “Maybe so,” you say.

Which do you think it is, if either?


7) O’Nan says that the one question underlying all of his work is “When do you give up?” Which, he concedes, “is a horrible question to ask, but it’s a question that a lot of people have to face.” Then, echoing Hamlet’s famous soliloquy on the subject, he adds, “That’s the question.”

Do you see this question reflected in A Prayer for the Dying?  Is this question “the question?”

O’Nan also once stated, “I am primarily a realist and hope to show great empathy for my people without softening the difficult situations they find themselves in-yet my work inevitably veers into the cruel and the sentimental…It is extreme fiction masquerading behind the guise of mainstream realism. I hope it is generous, or, as Cheever said, ‘humane.'”

Is A Prayer for the Dying a humane book despite its extremes?


8) On the last page of the novel Jacob thinks:

“The whole idea of penance is selfish, misguided. You can’t bargain with God, buy Him with pieties. This is what you’ve found out – that even with the best intentions, even with all of your thoughtful sermons and deep feelings and good works, you can’t save anyone, least of all yourself. And yet it’s not defeat. After everything, you may still be saved. Your mother was wrong; it’s not up to you. It’s always been His decision.”

Ultimately, what does this book say about Divine providence?  Do you agree with Hanson’s statements?


Posted in A Canticle for Leibowitz, comments, discussion

Let the Discussion Continue (or begin)

Just because we have selected a new book for reading and discussion doesn’t mean that you can’t add to the discussion on A Canticle for Leibowitz. Just go to this post, and add your comments or questions. I hope to do just that over the next few days. I know that someone is out there reading this blog since we have had almost 200 visits and over 300 page loads (and I also know that those were not all from Julie or me either. So let’s hear a few more voices!

Posted in A Prayer for the Dying, discussion, Stewart O'Nan

Our Book for November and December – A Prayer for the Dying

After an email exchange or two, Julie and I have decided that our next book for discussion group is The Librarium discussion group is A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan.

I found this book to be both powerful and disturbing at the same time. Written in the second person, the novel puts you squarely in the shoes of the protagonist, a place that is hard to be in at times. The novel asks questions about love and faith. In particular, where God is in times of tragedy. offers this synopsis:

When his town’s sleepy summer tranquility is shattered by an outbreak of diphtheria, Jacob Hansen–constable, deacon, and undertaker–stares at an impossible dilemma: save both himself and his family or observe his many duties? Although he’s nearly convinced that it’s possible to do both, the inexorable and crushing horror of Stewart O’Nan’s fifth novel, A Prayer for the Dying, is that evil doesn’t flinch, that its insistence can obliterate goodness, corrupt humility. “When won’t faith save you?” Jacob wonders; the silence soon deafens him.

An ostensibly injured Civil War veteran, Jacob watches helplessly as his neighbors in tiny Friendship, Wisconsin, are stricken with disease: simply hearing a mother say of her daughter, “She’s sick,” becomes chilling. Yet even as his wife and baby fall ill, Jacob patiently, dutifully tends to the helpless and buries the dead. When panic erupts, however, and he grapples with the tragedies accumulating before him, he feels the prick of spiritual doubt, even succumbs to violence. “Is this the devil’s work?” Jacob asks as he struggles to discern the good in a world without order, watches those he serves turn against him, and disregards his own moral outrage.

O’Nan’s style is taut and often oddly lovely, its immediacy braced by an unnerving second-person voice. The novel is, at root, spiritually terrifying. It forces us to consider at what remove we truly are from evil. Overwhelmed with checking his own despair, Jacob begins by pondering how to halt wickedness and ineluctably finds himself sustaining its slow creep. You wonder if he ever had a prayer. –Ben Guterson

A Prayer for the Dying can be purchased from or its affiliates for as less than $1.00 (plus shipping and handling). To order, just click on this link.

I hope some of you will join Julie and I in reading and discussing this intriguing book in the coming weeks. I will be posting some more thoughts and discussion starters sometime next week. In the meantime, get the book and start reading : )

To read a review of this book on the The New York Times website, as well as read the first chapter of the book, you can go here (you may have to register for the site, but it is painless, and then you have access to the Times for all of their other news, reviews, etc. . . as well).

Here is what other reviewers have had to say about A Prayer for the Dying:

“A cross between Steven Crane and Stephen King…O’Nan is certainly among the strongest American writers of his generation.”–Peter McCarthy, The Washington Post Book World

“A fine, terse novel about the circumstantial nature of evil and the terrible fragility of man.”–Patrick McGrath, The New York Times Book Review

“A sad and chilling novel…It will make readers shudder and think and marvel at a writer’s creation of an alien world that seems so real.–Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

“This urgent, economically told novel grabs you at the start and never lets up. O’Nan’s novel is beautiful testimony to profound truths.”–Dan Cryer, Newsday

“A gripping work of raw power…[A Prayer for the Dying] is a rare piece of fiction–viscerally real and wholly discomfiting, but a work so frightfully well done that it must be read.”–Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post

Posted in canticle for leibowitz, discussion, science fiction

October 2006: A Canticle for Leibowitz.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, the 1959 award-winning sci-fi book by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is the first selection for The Librarium book blog. It might seem a bit of a leap for an introductory selection, but the book, broken into three parts, strikes that odd and perfect balance of humor with an undercurrent of darkness. The edition of the book I use later in my reference to quotes with specific page numbers is this one.

First off, don’t let the classification of science fiction turn you away from the book, nor the seemingly slow beginning. What Miller manages to do with this story that spans several hundred years of post-nuclear war civilization in Southwestern United States is use symbolism and imagery to make a broad statement about the unfortunate cyclical nature of humanity. He touches on faith, government, the pursuit of knowledge and the locked nature of human nature.

I have a few questions and quotes that I wrote down while reading the book myself that I will include here as a kind of jumping-off point. There are also links to outside sources that you might want to consider. After you have read the book, please join us for discussion in the comments section of this post. Feel free to note quotes and excerpts, as well as additional questions, that you think important to include in the discussion.

Discussion questions:

  1. What is this book saying about faith? Is it easily misplaced? Or, even if it is, is it a necessary force against both barbarism and over-ambitious human intellectual endeavors?
  2. Are humans truly locked in inevitable destructive cycles? Is this the true price of sin, if you have such beliefs?
  3. Is the preservation of knowledge truly capable of stopping history from repeating itself? Can anything stop history from repeating itself?
  4. Is the pursuit of knowledge amoral and/or apolitical? Is it a consequence of free pursuit? (page 220-221)
  5. Who is the “Lazarus” beggar character? What/who does he represent and what is his purpose in the story? Is he merely a foil?
  6. What is the purpose of the frequent use of buzzards in the story? What do they represent? Why does Miller use them so much?

Quotes and passages of interest from the book:

  1. (p 221-222) “If you save wisdom until the world is wise, the world will never have it.”
  2. (p 228-229) The discussion on how each new age has an “intelligent” explanation for the origins of the world that “clearly” show the silliness of religion is very pointed and accurate in its perception of how foolishly wise humans think themselves to be.
  3. (p 234) “But why must it all be acted again? The answer was near at hand; there was still the serpent whispering.” (I found the use of the serpent, not a serpent, to be interesting.)
  4. (p 297) “Pain’s the only evil I know about. […] society is the only thing which determines whether an act is wrong or not.” […] “How did those two heresies get back into the world after all this time? Hell has limited imaginations down there.”
  5. (p 298) “Sincere — that was the hell of it. […] Perhaps Satan was the sincerest of the lot.”
  6. (p 213) The description of the “Jesus” statue is particularly startling.
  7. (p 326) “To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law — a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.”

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New Reading Group Blog Starting

After a little discussion with Julie of Lone Prairie Blog, I will be starting a Reader’s Group Blog for official launch in October and our first book will be A Canticle for Leibowitz.  I am looking for any suggestions anyone might have as to how to put this site together and possible books for us to read. My initial idea is that we pick one book each month (announced two weeks beforehand) and then have the one who proposed the book post an introductory page with some initial questions for reflection. After that, it is up to those interested to make as many comments and pursue as many discussions as they’d like. At the end of the month, discussion would be closed for the last book and new discussion would formally begin for the next text. Please let me know what you think and if you are interested in participating by leaving me a comment at my primary blog One Thing I Know, or at the end of this post.