Archives For Books
Because I peed my pants reading David Sedaris’ new book, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.
In it is an essay, Author? Author?, David has read before at his shows and was featured in the New Yorker. It’s about Costco, rubbers and his book tours. You can listen to it here. It’s hilarious.
Warning: If you’re easily offended or have certain Victorian assumptions about pastoral decorum, don’t listen.
The author of the book whence we got the idea for this series argues that Christianity’s unique claim is that ‘not all suffering is bad.’ I’ve already mentioned how I think this book is crap (yes, it seems you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover). I’ve come clean about disliking this book but this week it’s different. This week I find its positive treatment of suffering to be both morally repugnant- and the god implied therein- and a profound misunderstanding of the Gospel, in which Death and Sin are the enemies God battles and Christ’s cross is the ‘sacrifice to END all sacrifices.’
The author’s clumsy, tone deaf theology reminded me of an analysis that is the exact opposite in sensitivity: The Brothers Karamazov.
In it, Dostoyevsky, in the character of Ivan, rages against explanation to his devout brother and gives the best reason I’ve ever encountered for not believing in God. Better than anything in philosophy. Better than anything science can dredge up. Better than any hypocrisy or tragedy I’ve encountered in ministry.
Ivan first recounts, one after another, horrific stories of tortures suffered by children- stories Dostoyevsky ripped from the pages of newspapers- and then asks his pious brother if anything could ever justify the suffering of a single, innocent child.
What makes Ivan’s argument so challenging and unique is that he doesn’t, as you might expect, accuse God for failing to save children like those from suffering. He doesn’t argue as many atheists blandly do that if a good God existed then God would do something to prevent such evil.
Instead Ivan rejects salvation itself; namely, he rejects any salvation, any providence, any cosmic ‘plan’ that would necessitate such suffering. Ivan admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun; Ivan just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.
So, Ivan doesn’t so much disbelieve God as he rejects God, no matter what consequences such rejection might have for Ivan. He turns in his ticket to God’s Kingdom because he wants no part of the cost at which this Kingdom comes.
When I first read the Brothers K, Ivan’s argument, which is followed by the poem ‘The Grand Inquisitor, took my breath away. I had no answer or reply to Ivan. I was convinced he was right. I still am convinced by him.
The irony, I suspect, is that Ivan’s siding with suffering of the little ones is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that Ivan’s compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’
Every day I believe more and more that I’ve been called to the ministry in which I’m engaged, yet some day in the distant future I will cease to be a pastor.
I’m the parent of two curiously perfect boys, a vocation and identity I will never- even if I wanted it (even if they wanted it)- be able to shake.
I’m reading Michael Chabon’s new novel, Telegraph Avenue. Here’s how Chabon’s narrator puts fatherhood:
“…he saw it never would be over. You never would get through to the end of being a father, no matter where you stored your mind or how many steps in the series you followed. Not even if you died. Alive or dead, a thousand miles distant, you were always going to be on the hook for work that was neither a procedure nor a series of steps but, rather, something that demanded your full, constant attention without necessarily calling on you to do, perform or say anything at all.
Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks: open-ended, eternal and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars.”
This morning over oatmeal I listened to a great NPR story on the 50th Anniversary of the first black student bravely reporting to class at Ole Miss, escorted by the National Guard while hundreds of segregationists shouted their rage.
What was true 50 years ago remains true today: racism is (only) made possible by the absence of relationship. It’s only by treating the other as other, as invisible, that prejudice is allowed to grow or fester.
This is how novelist Michael Chabon puts it in an essay, in which he reflects on the many friendships he had with African Americans as a child and teenager compared with how few he had as a college graduate:
To qualify as a racist you don’t have to go to the extreme of slurring, stereotyping or discriminating against people of another race.
All you have to do…is feel completely disconnected from them. All you have to do is look at those people in a kind of almost scientific surprise, as I looked at the African-Americans I passed in the streets of L.A. in the days after the Simpson verdict, and realize you have been passing them by in just this way, for months, for years at a time. They were here all along, thinking what they think now, believing what they now believe, and somehow you failed to notice.
The quote is from this Sunday’s NY Times Magazine in which Chabon unpacks the inspiration for his new novel, Telegraph Avenue. The novel is wonderful and the best prose I’ve read in a long, long time.
Alan Jacobs has a book entitled: A Theology of Reading.In it he makes an incredibly simple point that far surpasses the act of reading. His point, drenched in the Gospel, can and should be applied to everything from marriage to church meetings to politics.
Here it is: genuine interpretation of another’s writing is an act of love or it is an act of abuse. Either we treat the author as a person who has given voice to his or her inner heart and that we can trust, listen to, and respond to. Or, we treat that person as a duplicitous voice that we can’t trust and that we can strip in order to use for our own power.
To love a person is to listen to them, and to let their voice speak. To listen to a person is to let that person’s world enter into our world. When the latter happens we choose either to enhance our own life with the other person or, as Cain did to Abel, we destroy that other person to make them what we want ourselves. To treat them with love and trust is to let them be the Eikons God made them to be; to refuse to trust them and love them is to make them a golden calf which we can hammer down into our own image.
We have no other real options. Genuine interpretation begins with loving the other.
My heart cut its reading teeth on John Irving’s The World According to Garp. I love that book and reread it every year. It’s my love of it that allows me to forgive Irving for his lesser or indulgent books. It’s T.S. Garp, more so than Super Nanny, Atticus Finch or any man in my family that has most informed and inspired my parenting- hence my proclivity towards ‘booty’ shorts and watching my kids sleep as supreme evening entertainment.
Another of Irving’s wonderful novels is A Widow for One Year, a tragicomedy (like all of his books) about a children’s book author/illustrator whose two boys-spoiler alert- die tragically in a car accident. A loss from which the family never recovers (like all of his books).
In the book, the father routinely and extemporaneously tells his little girl, Ruthie, bedtime stories featuring thinly disguised versions of the dead brothers Ruth never knew. One of these was a bedtime story about a mouse crawling between the walls.
Irving later turned it into a children’s book. I love it because of my love of the novel from which it came. My boys, however, just love it. They can tell it themselves. It never fails to frighten and delight them. It’s a perfect story, hauntingly drawn. I know from reading to my kids’ classes that next to no one has read this book. Their- and your- loss.
My post yesterday on David Kinnaman’s book, You Lost Me: Why Young People Are Leaving the Church, generated several emails, one of which was a passionate note from a mother whose 20-something daughter simply has no interest in the church. The issue is real and, for those who care about the Church, urgent.
David Kinnaman’s research found six basic reasons young people cited for writing off the Church. Kinnaman labels the first of these ‘Overprotective.’ That is, just as our culture is rife with the phenomenon of ‘helicopter parenting’ so too do our churches vigilantly- excessively- manage their members (of all ages).
In the same way that helicopter parents intervene to insure that their children do not make mistakes, do not make messes, do not fail or fall on their face and do not miss an opportunity; helicopter churches minimize Christians’ creativity, self-expression and risk-taking in the fear that an innovation fail. ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it‘ in other words isn’t simply arbitrary stifling of anything new it’s the genuine desire to protect the church- and its members- from harm. Helicopter churches, as much as helicopter parents, are motivated by love. We love the church and so we don’t want someone’s new idea mess it up. We love our youth and so we don’t want their new idea to fail and hurt them.
Kinnaman wonders if this comes at a cost:
“Is it possible that our cultural fixation on safety and protectiveness has also had a profound effect on the church’s ability to disciple the next generation of Christians? Are we preparing them for a life of risk, adventure, and service to God- a God who asks that they lay down their lives for his kingdom? Or are we churning out safe, compliant Christian kids who are either chomping at the bit to get free or huddling in the basement playing World of Warcraft for hours on end, terrified to step outside?‘
Whatever good intentions might motivate such overprotectiveness, Kinnaman argues the research shows that it comes with risks.
By protecting our youth from the world (and isn’t this often what we want church and youth group to do-provide a safe alternative to the realities of teen life?) we inadvertently, yet quite logically, do a bad job of preparing them to live in it as Christians. We spend so much time shielding them from the world they have no idea how to practice their faith in the world once we can no longer, because of age, keep them from participating in the world. Is it any wonder, then, that young people drift away from the faith once they’re in the 20’s and 30’s. Our love of them and the church has produced a sort of Faith-Failure to Launch.
This plays itself out in a few ways, Kinnaman says.
- By presenting youth a risk-free form of Christianity, it’s only natural that youth would seek out risks from other, less healthy, outlets. We’re not giving them a Christianity that’s sufficiently interesting to compel them away from ‘bad’ risks.
- By shying away from asking youth to ‘make a decision’ (to give their life to Christ) we fail to equip them to make any other decisions of consequence.
- By protecting the church and youth from ‘mistakes’ we stifle creativity which has led to a loss, a near absence really, of Christian art. And, as any historian of Christianity can tell you, it was the Church’s ability to shape culture- not mimic it in pop form- that led to Christianity’s rapid rise in the ancient world.
The last two weeks I’ve preached sermons on Isaiah’s 3-year stint preaching nude and David’s 100 foreskin dowry. Some have suggested I’ve done this for juvenile and/or prurient interests. While I don’t deny my juvenile tendencies, I’ve actually chosen these scriptures for the very reasons Kinnaman highlights in his book. By blatantly choosing bible passages that might otherwise be off-limits and honestly wrestling with them, having fun with them and asking questions of them, I want to indirectly communicate to my listeners that we’re the kind of church where anything, if done in good faith, goes. I don’t, in other words, feel the need to protect people from anything, even scripture.
Have you read Calico Joe? You probably don’t read such light stuff, but… you do go to those awful movies.
While I appreciate the flattery suggested in their email (at least as it applies to my reading habits), I should come clean and admit that my ‘pleasure’ reading isn’t constituted by endless tomes of heady stuff. At the same time, I’ll also admit that the elitist in me won’t allow myself to be caught dead with certain books no matter how much I might enjoy them; therefore, my iPad is where you’ll find books by Stephen King or John Grisham. With my base interests safely digitized, I can dive into King’s re-creation of the JFK assassination all the while letting you assume I’m busy reading Derrida or Aquinas.
When it comes to my guilty pleasures though, murder mysteries undoubtedly top the list. And I’m not talking about those terrible little books you can buy at Safeway whose plots are thinner than an episode of Law and Order. No, I’m talking genuine pulp mysteries: The Killer Inside Me, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, James Ellroy’s fantastically bloody and profane American Tabloid novels and even PD James’ mannered Dalgliesh who-dunnits. I like the dialogue hard-boiled, the worldview darkly tragic and the heroes anti-.
Among my recent favorites are Irish writer Tana French’s related sequence of mysteries. I’m reading her latest, Broken Harbor, that came out last week. The writer is superb (my biggest gripe about so many mystery novels), the characters are complex enough to sink your teeth into, and the Irish setting offers a nice twist on the usual noir particulars.
One of the reasons I’ve always like mysteries, besides the puzzle they offer, is the same reason I like Batman. Murder mysteries, whether it’s the author’s intent or not, offer a decidedly Christian window into the nature of things. The characters are complex and know there is no such thing as a good or bad person but that something like grace is the only thing we can hope for. The world is never black and white but gray through and through. And death, precisely because life is so precious, is never something that should go unanswered. Thus in the best murder novels the macabre becomes something like a parable.
Detective Kennedy, in Broken Harbor, explaining his vocation, says it better than me:
‘The final step into feral is murder. We stand between that and you. We say, when no else will, There are rules here. There are limits. There are boundaries that don’t move. I’m the least fanciful guy around, but on nights when I wonder whether there was any point to my day, I think about this: the first we ever did, when we started turning into humans, was draw a line across the cave door and say: Wild stays out. What I do is what the first men did. They built walls to keep back the sea. They fought the wolves for the hearth fire.’
I wonder…what tops your list?