What I Have Been Reading….Kullervo and What Makes Life Worth Living

This will be the first post to begin my second full year of blogging…. I appreciate all who have taken the time to read any of my posts over the last year. I have enjoyed writing posts, sharing my thoughts and discussing some books I have enjoyed reading. This year I am planning on writing posts on loneliness, a biblical perspective on finding a vocation, some thoughts about Christianity and the environment in addition to book reviews and reflections on the Bible. We shall see what else might come up.

Here are the last few book reviews from last years reading. I hope you enjoy them and if the books sound interesting please check them out for your self ( I have included links that you can use to purchase them if you so desire). I always appreciate any thoughts shared in the comments at the end of the post.

*I am an affiliate with both Bookshop.org and Christian Book Distributors. I receive a small percentage of any sales generated on any links on this website.*

Book Review

The Story of Kullervo by J. R. R. Tolkien

I am a huge fan of J. R. R. Tolkien and in the last year I have been digging deeper into his writing and thought processes as well as reading some of his more obscure works. To that end, I purchased a copy of ‘Kullervo’, a reworking of a Finnish myth that was Tolkien’s first real attempt at creating his own mythological world. I first heard of this book while reading Holly Ordways’s excellent book, ‘Tolkien’s Modern Reading’ (reviewed here) and was intrigued both because of the obscure nature of the story as well as the importance Ordway saw in Kullervo’s impact on Tolkien’s later Middle-Earth stories.

The story itself I found a bit strange and hard to follow. This is partly due to the nature of the Finnish myth the story drawn is from and partly due to Tolkien’s young age at the time he wrote the story (probably around 20-22 years old). The story of the myth of Kullervo is drawn from the Kalevala, a collection of Finnish mythology first published in the mid-1800’s. These stories have a fast-moving, nonsensical quality where fastidious attention to immersive realism (such as is found in the Lord of the Rings) is not of primary importance. Thus one scene in ‘The Story of Kullervo’ moves rapidly to the next with little concern for logical connections between events. The overarching story of Kullervo seeking revenge for his father’s murder by his uncle is simply a backdrop for the various events in the story to occur; it doesn’t seem all that important whether or not Kullervo achieves his aims.

Another quality that makes the story had to follow are the numerous names every major character has in the story that are used interchangeably with no explanation. Kullervo is also called Kuli, Sake, Sakehonto, Honto, Sari, and Sarihonto. Not only do these names not have any obvious relationships with each other, they are not ‘introduced’ in a way that makes it obvious who is being referred to. This holds true for many, if not all, the major characters and certainly demands close attention to the story to figure out who is being referred to at any given time.

The importance of Kullervo in Tolkein’s mythology is demonstrated most strikingly in comparing it to the later tragic story of Turin Turambar. Both involve an angry, young man with tremendous ability, who, in trying to find himself causes destruction and unknowingly marries his sister. That this story is the germ for the Turin story seems pretty clear once you read it.

I enjoyed ‘The Story of Kullervo’ and would recommend it, provided you know what it is. It is a building block of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth stories; not a finished product in itself. As it stands on iown we don’t have a truly finished version and keeping in mind Tolkien’s youth at the time he wrote the story the roughness and strangeness are more understandable. Much of this book is scholarly commentary and a reprint of a lecture that Tolkien gave on ‘The Kalevala’; so keep that in mind as well. For the true Tolkien aficionado.

The Story of Kullervo
By J.R.R. Tolkien / Mariner Books

Tolkien characterized The Story of Kullervo was the “the germ of my attempt to write legends of my own. Kullervo is an ancestor of Turin Turambar, the tragic hero of The Children of Hurin. This work is published with the author’s drafts, notes, and lecture essays on its source work, the Kalevala, The Story of Kullervo is a foundational work in Tolkein’s invented world. 168 pages, softcover.

What Makes Life Worth Living by W. Philip Keller

As I mentioned in a previous post, Philip Keller’s writings have been influential on my devotional life over the last few years. He writes in a simple, plain style but with a lot of spiritual depth and wisdom. ‘What Makes Life Worth Living’ is no different. Written near the end of his life, ‘What Makes Life Worth Living’ encapsulates the key lessons Keller has learned over his life that he believes contribute to a satisfying and joyful life; despite whatever adversity may come. Not all the lessons are spiritual; he writes chapters on the value of laughter, proper nutrition and exercise, hard work, and taking time to enjoy the beauty in nature. But the heart of the book is spiritual, and even the non-spiritual chapters are have spirituality interwoven in them. The ‘spiritual’ chapters are on themes such as prayer, facing adversity, gratitude and thankfulness, stewardship and more. Every chapter is woven around that central idea that only a deep, consistent relationship with God can get one through life’s ups and downs. I would agree with Keller that most Christians today do not have the depth of relationship with Christ that we should have and this book is an excellent reminder of ways we can cultivate that relationship.

While I found great value in this book; I have a few criticisms. First is that Keller, while emphasizing the value of a deep relationship with God, tends to completely minimize the value of other helpful methods of dealing with life’s stresses such as counseling. I agree that a relationship with God can help overcome anxiety, stress, depression etc., as we are transformed through reconnecting with our Creator, but I think that tools such as counseling have their place. They can be helpful provided we see them as tools and not the complete solution to all our problems. A second criticism is that Keller has a somewhat black and white view of the world in that he sees rural life as virtuous and city life as inherently evil. Lastly, he tends to overuse adjectives to the point of annoyance. For example, nearly every time in any of his books he refers to the Holy Spirit, he precedes it with word ‘gracious’. God’s character is always referred to as ‘noble character’ or ‘gracious character’. Nothing inherently wrong with this but he does over use adjectives to the point of irritation.

What Makes Life Worth Living
By W. Phillip Keller / Kregel Publications

In his final work based on decades of ever-deepening Christian experience, Phillip Keller shares his spiritual heritage – showing us the path to confident and resilient faith. He explores twenty-one ways to embrace deeper meaning and joy in our daily lives, beginning with knowing God firsthand. From this central relationship flows a new perspective on the reason and resources for everyday challenges, stresses, and blessings.

The Restless Heart by Ronald Rolheiser

Ronald Rolheisers’s book ‘The Restless Heart: Finding Our Spiritual Home in Times of Loneliness’ was one of the best books I read in the past year. I came across Rolheiser’s blog posts while doing research on a post about the effects of loneliness on political involvement. I was intrigued by his posts and decided to purchase his book on the subject which could probably be described as an elaboration of a Theology of Loneliness. Rolheiser is a Catholic priest who has served in many capacities (professor, writer, speaker, retreat leader) in several countries (Canda, USA, Belgium, and Italy). This wide experience gives him a wealth of perspectives to draw on in his writing. I found his writing to be approachable and well written with both an academic and spiritual depth. Coming from a conservative Evangelical background I have read very few Catholic spiritual books and I found it very rewarding; appreciating both the similarities of a common faith and also the differences in each tradition’s perspectives.

‘The Restless Heart’ is both an academic analysis of loneliness (he identifies 5 types- alienation, restlessness, fantasy, rootlessness, and psychological depression) and theological study of loneliness in which the problem of loneliness is set squarely in the framework of a broken, sinful world. He examines the sociological causes of loneliness (alienation and rootlessness are amplified by our Western cultural values) and also the spiritual causes: pride, vanity, and selfishness. “In it’s discussion on sin as causing loneliness, the New Testament makes explicit some interesting dimensions of this problem. It sees the loneliness that come from sin as being not just metaphorically but actually the experience of hell….Hell is the experience of loneliness that results from pride, selfishness and sin.” Identifying loneliness as literally being Hell is an idea I have been pondering for years (C. S. Lewis and George Macdonald both embrace this idea if I remember correctly). Loneliness is a foretaste of the Hell of eternity; a true experience of Hell on earth.

Rolheiser continues after his analysis of loneliness to address the obvious question of “so what do we do about it?”. He properly places the antidote to loneliness within Christian community. “Is this not what the Kingdom of God is really about? Has not Christ called us precisely to break through the mirrors and and riddles, the shadows and fantasies, the facades and unrealities that separate us from each other and from God so that we can all meet face to face? Has not Christ called us to to pierce the dim reflection? Heaven, and a full answer to our loneliness lies in doing just that.” While he offers up Christian community as a solution, he cautions us not to overstate what we can expect in this broken world we live in. “We are pilgrims on Earth. We are living in the final age of history, but are destined to be partly lonely until Jesus returns.” This caution is one many people need, particularly those who see romantic relationships as a quick fix to their loneliness. Another aspect of the book I really appreciated was that Rolheiser challenges the popular view that loneliness is always bad. “Contrary to much of our conventional wisdom, which sees all loneliness as bad and advises us to avoid it at all costs, our Christian understanding will challenge us to discern among the different types of loneliness, avoiding some, enduring others, and positively taking up and entering into some other types of loneliness.” He offers up this challenge: that by facing our loneliness we can enter into and share the loneliness of Christ, and that someday that loneliness will, in Christ, finally be quenched.

This was an excellent book with a much needed message. It seems particularly relevant to our individualistic Western societies with America probably being the worst in that regard. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to take a deeper look at loneliness. Pastors and spiritual leaders may find this book particularly helpful to deal with the impact of loneliness in their congregations.

The Restless Heart: Finding Our Spiritual Home
By Ronald Rolheiser / Image Entertainment

Interesting Articles or Blog Posts

Russell Moore discusses the lingering affects of the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol building in this article. “Such is the sign not of a post-Christian culture but of a post-Christian Christianity, not of a secularizing society but of a paganizing church.”

Blogger Alistair Chalmers posts his top ten books of 2021 in this post for those looking for more titles to read.

Enter your email address below to receive posts delivered straight to your inbox.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s