My Life in Books

- 4 mins

A few years ago I heard a radio interview on NPR with an author of a novel in which the narrator introduces each character in terms of three books that best describes him or her. I pondered this idea in search of three books that would form a composite image of who I am and what my values are. I selected Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Philip Halle’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, and Christopher Hill’s Holidays and Holy Nights.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is a novel of the British Regency period and is considered by many to be a great work of English literature. Like Jane Austen, I am simultaneously a romantic and a pragmatist. I love a happy ending, but I realize that happy endings are often hard won. For better and for worse, one’s choices in life are shaped by numerous familial, societal, and financial considerations. The novel’s hero, Elizabeth Bennett, possesses several qualities that I also see in myself. She is smart, clever, personable, persistent, and fiercely loyal. The original title of the novel was First Impressions, because it explores the relationship between our surface perceptions of other people upon first meeting them and the substance of the character that may reside underneath their public persona. Through the course of the novel Elizabeth Bennett and her romantic opposite, Fitzwilliam Darcy, discover that snap judgments can lead to false conclusions. Their original misunderstanding of one another almost precludes them from discovering the common ground that ultimately transcends the class and status markers that divide them.

Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There by Phillip Halle is a researched account of a Huguenot (French Protestant) congregation in southern France that banded together with their community during World War II to smuggle Jews out of the country to safety. Inspired by their study of non-violent resistance, Pastor André Trocmé and the Le Chambon congregation, along with others from their community, organized a coordinated plan to care for Jewish refugees who fled from northern Nazi-occupied France, forge new passports for them, and then send them forth to others who would take them out of Europe.

André and spouse Magda Trocmé were designated Righteous among Nations by the State of Israel in 1971 and 1986, respectively, for their dedication to saving Jews during the Shoah. Their nephew, Daniel Trocmé was also named Righteous among Nations in 1976. He died in the Majdanek concentration camp in April 1944. The national Shoah memorial in Israel, Yad Vashem, also honors the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and its neighboring communities with a monument on its grounds.

Hallie explains that the ethic of Pastor André Trocmé “drew its power from the life and death of Jesus. The example and the words of Jesus inspired awe in André Trocmé, and he did what he did because he wanted to be with Jesus, in the sense of imitating Jesus’ example and obeying his words . . . He wanted to be close to Jesus, a loving disciple who put his feet in Jesus’ footprints with stubborn devotion.” For me, Pastor André Trocmé and the congregation of Le Chambon are the embodiment of what it means to live in the model of Jesus, living out the biblical commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Holidays and Holy Nights by Christopher Hill traces the development of the liturgical calendar in Europe in order to explain how the cycles of nature and the pre-Christian traditions of the people of the countryside joined with established Christian practices to shape the design of the church year we know today. Hill poetically weaves together various traditions surrounding the most celebrated aspects of the church year, such as Advent and Holy Week, as well as introducing Protestants to lesser-known aspects of the liturgical calendar like Candlemas (Feb. 2nd) and Michaelmas (Sept. 29).

Hill gently persuades his readers to embrace the beauty of how pre-Christian seasonal practices meld with Christian traditions around the world in ways that can greatly enhance our spiritual lives. For example, Hill demonstrates that Halloween need not be perceived as something antithetical to Christianity, but rather as a celebration that allows us to face our fears with a sense of humor and engage in the ancient practice of offering hospitality to the stranger. For Hill, Halloween is the release of festive energy that has always preceded periods of fasting, like how Carnival/Mardi Gras is the precursor to Ash Wednesday. At the end of each chapter he provides suggestions for activities and spiritual practices that individuals, families, and congregations can use to integrate the rhythms of the liturgical year into our daily spiritual practices.