I’m a church lady.

I hinted last week that I might post about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this week, but after watching the Blu-Ray, including the deleted scenes (which were enjoyable  but didn’t fill in any of the story gaps I’d hoped they would), I found that I don’t have a whole lot that’s new to say about the movie, except that I still love it, story gaps and all.  I will briefly mention, however, that I now have a favorite sequence: the one in which Newt and Jacob work together to catch the Erumpent in Central Park.  It starts off with that lovely little scene in which Newt does the Erumpent mating dance, showing that he has no problem making himself look ridiculous for the benefit of his beloved beasts (and making us love them too, vicariously).  After that, it’s a well-paced, purely fun caper through the park that solidifies the partnership between Newt and Jacob–at the end, the latter puts out his hand as if they’re meeting for the first time and finally says, “Call me Jacob.”  The music is also perfect in this sequence; it’s beautiful and sounds like something that should be in a ballet, but it has just enough of a sense of humor to fit the tone of the events.

But that’s not the topic of today’s post.  Instead, I want to write a little bit about the wonderful time I had this past weekend at my church’s women’s retreat at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Ashville, NC.  I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m a mountain lover, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed my surroundings, especially the feeling of being enveloped by the woods while zip-lining on Saturday.  I also enjoyed The Cove’s gourmet meals, the music and teaching sessions, and getting to sleep in almost total darkness and quiet.

But my favorite thing about the retreat was looking around and realizing just how many women from my church I recognize and, of those, how many I can call my friends.  This is significant to me not only because I belong to a large church, but also because for a long time, I didn’t think I was a “church lady.”  During college and for a number of years after that, I did not consider myself the type of person who would go to a women’s retreat–nor who would attend a Beth Moore Living Proof event (which I did last fall) or who would wear a piece of jewelry inspired by a book from a women’s Bible study I participated (and I love my necklace pendant that looks like the bird’s nest on the cover of Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts).

Now, when I look back on the period when I thought I wasn’t a church lady, I realize that my attitude largely stemmed from pride and prejudice.  (I promise that was not an intentional Jane Austen reference, but I decided to run with it.)  I had a very narrow definition of what a church lady was.  Although I couldn’t have pointed to one person who fit this description, my stereotyped mental image of a church lady didn’t like to read non-Christian fiction, hugged everyone who came across her path but didn’t really know them, would have considered me unspiritual and just plain weird for liking Harry Potter and rock music, and used Bible verses in all of her decorating.  She was also, although I may not have ever articulated this is a verbal thought, intellectually and spiritually inferior to me.

Of course, I was wrong, not to mention lousy with pride.  My erroneous thinking derived from two main problems.  First, I was forgetting that the true definition of a “church lady” is any woman who belongs to Jesus Christ, even if she lives in a country that doesn’t have a single Lifeway.  Second, I didn’t know very many women from my local church.  It took me a long time and some deliberate actions–serving in various ministries, becoming an official church member, deigning to attend Wednesday night Bible studies–before I really started getting to know some of them.  Now, in my church, I have running buddies, I have fellow Harry Potter fans, and I have women who may not have any superficial interests in common with me but with whom I can have a genuine conversation about life.  It was beautiful to look out over the crowd in our sessions over the weekend and realize that.

We have a winner!

Congratulations to Allison, the winner of a lovely hardcover copy of A Jane Austen Devotional.  Allison, I have already sent your address to the PR representative who sponsored the contest, so you should be receiving your book in the mail soon.  Here again is the Jane Austen quotation that Allison shared as her contest entry, along with her commentary:

In which Miss Elizabeth accepts an invitation to the Lakes and consoles herself over the loss of Mr. Wickham with admirable humo(u)r:

“‘Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen.’”

Having now been to the Lakes, I have a new appreciation for the heart-healing power of rocks and mountains!

Honorable mention goes to Vickie, who, I hear, has already gone out and bought her own copy of the book at Lifeway.  The Charles Dickens contest received no entries, sadly.  I do realize that C.D. is not everyone’s cup of tea, but perhaps some of you should try him out and see what you’re missing!

Review: Devotional books for classic fiction lovers

A Jane Austen Devotional and A Charles Dickens Devotional (Thomas Nelson, 2012) are beautiful books.  When I received my copies in the mail, I was delighted by the lovely, understated cover art—a pastoral scene on the Austen volume and some calligraphic quotations on the Dickens—as well as by the size, perfect for holding comfortably in one or two hands.  As a bonus, there’s a ribbon marker in each book, which is always fun.

When I opened the books, I continued to be pleased.  The layout is attractive, with a passage from one of the novels on the left-hand page and the devotional reading on the right.  I was happy to see that both books represent all of the major novels of both authors, a point on which I was particularly skeptical when I first heard about these books.  I was worried that all of the quotations would be from Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist and that they would be very short and taken egregiously out of context.  So far, however, during the week or so that I’ve been using these books in my personal devotions, I’ve read and enjoyed substantial quotations from less hyped works such as Northanger Abbey and Dombey and Son.

And yes, you read that right; I’m breaking a cardinal rule of book reviewing by writing and posting this review before finishing the books.  But in the case of a devotional book, which is meant to be read in small pieces and has no narrative flow, I think that rule can justifiably be broken.  Still, I’m hoping that some of the less positive observations I’m about to make may be proven wrong as I continue through the books.  If that happens, I will be sure to revisit this post and make changes in the spirit of fairness and charity, which both Jane and Charles would no doubt approve.

I said that the quotations from the novels are well-chosen, and this is true.  I am less satisfied, however, with the quality of the devotional readings.  I’m finding them a little shallow, especially in the Dickens volume.  I haven’t encountered any heretical doctrine, of course, and I’ve only run across one clearly misinterpreted Bible verse (it was removed from its context).  But when I read the devotions, I get the impression that I’m listening to a very short sermon into which the preacher is determined to incorporate as many individual scripture verses as possible.  I tend to prefer an expository style as opposed to a topical one, and these books are very, very topical.  And it’s virtually impossible to do justice to any topic in just one page, which has very wide margins.

The reasons why the Dickens volume might be a bit weaker than the Austen volume are twofold.  One is the coverage issue: Dickens wrote a lot of books, and some of them lend themselves more aptly than others to a life-lessons style of interpretation (A Christmas Carol is a gold mine; Pickwick Papers, perhaps not so much).  I’m happy that the person selecting the excerpts was determined to represent a large sampling of the Dickens canon, but sometimes that determination leads the reader into odd places.  The other reason is that unlike Austen, who was a clergyman’s daughter, Dickens wasn’t exactly an orthodox Christian.  He was often critical of the church, and his doctrines skewed a bit toward the Unitarian.  (Note: That statement is based solely upon my own observations, and I’m not a theologian.)  Dickens’s novels contain many biblical motifs and symbols, which would make a fascinating book, but it wouldn’t be a devotional book.

Conclusion: If you are a lover of Austen and/or Dickens, buy the book(s).  At the very least, they will look nice on your shelves.  You will also enjoy revisiting some of your favorite characters and locations in all of literature (if you’re like me, that is).  If you want to incorporate the books into your personal devotions, plan to use them as a jumping-off point for excursions deeper into Scripture.  For example, I’ve been looking up the verses cited in the text and reading them in their surrounding context.  I’m finding it to be a rewarding venture.  Oh, and make sure you read the introduction(s).  So far, my favorite part of either book has been a sentence toward the end of the Jane Austen introduction.

Win a book!

Hello, small but loyal group of followers!  Would you like to win a lovely hardcover copy of A Jane Austen Devotional or A Charles Dickens Devotional (both new from Thomas Nelson; my reviews forthcoming)?  I haven’t had a chance to see the books myself yet, but I have it on good authority that these are not just frothy gift books assembled from quotes found in a Google search–they contain substantial excerpts from the respective authors’ works, and they’re theologically solid too.

Here’s how you win: In a comment, send me your favorite quotation from an Austen novel or a Dickens novel (or both, if you’d like to enter both contests), and make sure you identify the novel and the character who speaks it, unless of course it’s the narrator.  Then explain in a few sentences why you like it so much.  I’ll pick the best entry for each author, and then I’ll arrange to have the book sent to you.  Please send me your entries by Monday, January 16.  That gives you about a month to reread your favorite novel if necessary.  I am prepared to be impressed!