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Penguins and Golden Calves

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I love her stories reflect her love for God. She talks about the difference between an idol and a icon. I like how she describes certain things as symbols of God on earth
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In this book, Madeleine L’Engle shares details about her trip to Antarctica at the age of 74, and the things she learned about the area and penguins while there. She explains why she thinks that penguins and many other things  can be icons ( windows to God which leads to  the development of a rich and deeply spiritual faith) and rounds it out with her feelings about  idols (those things that we see as a reflection of themselves and are worshipped that way).   I often felt awe at  things in nature and an incredible sense of  God’s creation, so I have to say that I appreciated  this observation and others like it. I also feel that she does a wonderful job of explaining  why we should be careful that our icons don’t become idols. 

This was an intriguing look into the thoughts of a writer who is well known for the book, A Wrinkle in Time, one of my childhood favorites. This is also the second book of hers that I have read recently, and I feel it is worthy of 5 stars.
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Penguins and Golden Calves

Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places

by Madeleine L’Engle

Crown Publishing

Convergent Books


Pub Date 18 Sep 2018

I am reviewing a copy of Penguis and Golden Calves through Crown Publishing and Netgalley:

When Madeline L’Engle was seventy four she went on a rafting trip to Antarctica, her journey through this beautiful land led her to write Penguins and Golden Calves. This book is a captivating discussion on how opening yourself up to Icons or everyday Icons can become windows to God and can lead to the development of a richer relationship with God!

In this book Madeline L’ Engle explains how the ordinary everyday things such as family, friends, words the Bible, Heaven and even Penguins can become symbols but she warns us too that a window can become an idol if we let it, how a Penguin can.become a Golden Calf, when we allow it to reflect ourselves and not the good Lord.

I give Penguins and Golden Calves five out if five stars!

Happy Reading
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Thanks to netgalley and Convergent Books for this ARC.

Icon versus idol. This is what L’Engle explores in this exceptional book. I quickly realized I was in more than capable hands as I delved into potentially complicated text. She skillfully explains some complex theology, but never loses sight of the great Mystery that is the heart of Christianity. And over and over she emphasizes LOVE. This emphasis on love and compassion and reserving judgment for God make Penguins and Golden Calves a timely work, though it was originally published in the ‘90’s. I can only imagine what Mrs. L’Engle would have to say about the current political/social climate. But I bet it would begin with an entreaty for us all (especially Christians!) to love.
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I read this book in the 90s, but I didn’t remember much of it so when I was offered a review copy I thought it might be good to read it again.

I knew when I picked up this book that Madeleine L’Engle and I hold some vastly different theological views.  I also knew that L’Engle was a woman who loved Jesus, thought deeply about life and has things to teach me through her writing.

This book in particular, helped me wade through the vast differences in our opinions, because it was laid out in a rambling, conversational manner.  Instead of thinking of Penguins and Golden Calves as an author’s attempt to teach me something in particular I opened each chapter as if we were having a chat over a cup of coffee.  This is exactly what the book felt like to me.  L’Engle would say something I’d nod my head to, then she would say something startling and then she would continue on explaining her thoughts and pondering their context and implications for life.  It’s exactly what happens in good conversation.  Along the way someone says something that causes you to raise your eyebrows and then you ask, “tell me about that,” and sit back and listen to their heart.

I think this book was a good exercise for me in conversation, even though that was not its intent.  In today’s world many “conversations” happen over social media or in some type of print rather than sitting face to face across a cup of coffee.  I think it is infinitely harder to have a conversation over print, because I expect something written to be precise, thought out and an overall representation of a person’s thoughts.  I don’t expect something in print to be an exploration the same way that I expect a conversation to be a journey of discovery.  Learning to listen to Madelaine in her writing, whether I agreed or not, to hear her heart for the Lord and her heart for people became a fruitful exercise for me.  I would say that if you can’t do that, if you can’t wade through some of her non-evangelical viewpoints with grace while gleaning some very real wisdom from her writing then you should probably skip this book.

If you do, however, sit down to read Penguins and Golden Calves you will find some deeply challenging insights on the windows/metaphors/icons we use that help us grow in relationship to God as well as some very apt warnings of how the very things that we think are icons can become idols.   I also found her observations of how culture had changed over her lifetime and now looking back twenty two years to when she wrote this book another fruitful exercise.

Some of the most meaningful wisdom that I gleaned came in a random sentence or paragraph that was quickly past, but not expounded upon.  The book does ramble throughout many subject and opinions, yet it always comes back to a daily, living and active relationship with God.


I received a free digital galley of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.
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“Ultimately words are useless, and yet, penultimately, they are all we have.” 

So muses Madeleine L’Engle in her book Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places, which is a meditation on words, on the nature of communication, on the infinity and ultimately unknowable mystery of God; or, as L’Engle quotes from St. Augustine, “If you think you understand, it isn’t God.”

It is of course paradoxical to use words to try to communicate the ultimate futility of words, and this review will undoubtedly offer an even more fractured and incomplete view of the subject that L’Engle does - so it’s worth reading the book if you want to consider the subject at more length. But the image that really stuck with me comes when L’Engle is describing icons (and a word can be an icon just as much as a picture can) - that an icon is a window, a way to help us grasp something infinite and therefore larger than our finite understanding. 

And an icon (word or picture) turns into an idol when we lose sight of the fact that it is just a window, an approximation, a larger thing reduced to a size that we can try to comprehend - and begin to believe that we’ve got an exact understanding of the thing-in-itself. 

L’Engle discusses this with reference to Christian denominations, particularly with regard to what she calls “fundalits”: fundamentalist literalists, who try to take the Bible “literally,” although, inevitably, any such literalism must be selective. 

For instance, in fundalit circles (and perhaps Christian circles more widely?) there’s the idea that you should be able to joyfully praise God at any time - even if, say, your three-year-old daughter is slowly dying of an agonizing cancer. And yet, as L’Engle points out, if you actually read the Psalms, they’re full of “outraged bellowings of self-pity and anger.” If we’re taking the Bible literally, then it’s A-okay to raise your fists to the sky and scream “Why did you allow this to happen, God? You are the actual worst!” 

Even Jesus cried out on the cross. Does “be better than Jesus” really seem like an achievable goal? 

Another illuminating aspect of this book: L’Engle discusses the parables, and points out that many of them are meant to describe humanity’s relationship with God - and therefore don’t necessarily track directly onto how humans should treat each other, because the Christian God is infinite and humans just aren’t. The parable of the vineyard is an illustration of God’s grace, not a commentary on fair labor practices. 

She also comments that the Protestant tradition in particular tends to ignore the context of the parables: Jesus tells these parables to specific people at specific times during his ministry, and that affects their meaning - and plucking them out of context often changes or even contradicts what they meant in context.
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