Saturday, September 27, 2008

What's So Funny About Faith, Hope & Love?

Just before I sat down to read a chapter from Churched, the new book by Matthew Paul Turner, I heard a radio report on secret tapes from inside Wahabi mosques in the United States. Muslim women were teaching one another that the Quran demands that adulterers, among other offenders, be stoned to death.

I had the sneaking suspicion that these women were being taken out of context and willfully misinterpreted. Secret tapings of Bible studies on any given day, I'm convinced, could yield a very similar expose about Christianity in the United States; people in the Bible get killed by stoning for any number of offenses, including mouthing off to their parents or even in some cases for being from the wrong tribe.

Meanwhile, in a country with substantial Muslim and Christian populations, and with rampant adultery and child-parent back-talk, stonings are almost nonexistent. While I'm sure there are acts of violence in the United States motivated by religion, it seems to me that for the most part such readings of sacred texts boil down to little more than talk.

I don't care for this kind of fear-mongering; I think it's an unfair and unproductive way of interpreting an unfamiliar culture. There's another way--a better way, I think--to do it: by being funny. This is the approach Turner takes in Churched.

Full disclosure: Turner is a "friend" of mine, even though we've never met. We run in similar virtual circles on Facebook and attend some of the same conferences in professional American Christianity. He read my review of Jesus Laughed by Robert Darden, posted here last month and on Burnside Writers Collective a few weeks later, and asked me to review Churched for him, which I was happy to do. He sent me an advance reader copy, so I don't have the final text, which means that any quotes I post here may not match up with your copy of the book.

Turner is a humorist, and he's a Christian of the evangelical sort, who grew up in the fundamentalist tradition in America. I did not; I grew up Catholic and migrated to evangelical Protestantism as an adult. So I read this book as a sympathetic outsider; it's painfully hard for me to believe that such churches exist, even though I've visited some. Turner writes the book as a sympathetic though critical insider, someone who has noticed the nuttiness that attends fundamentalism, who has moved into a post-fundamentalist adulthood but can't shake the family ties that bind him to his history. I've read some memoirs from people with similar upbringings to his that served as a kind of cathartic purge; the adult memoirist justifies his or her current convictions by sacrificing his or her upbringing on the altar of ridicule. That's not Turner's way; he honors the ethics of humor that Darden spells out in Jesus Laughed.

We chuckle with Turner, and presumably with some of his family and friends who grew up with him, over the silly antics of Pastor Nolan--from his much-hyped annual boxing match with the devil to his intricate theology of male haircuts. We groan at the strained efforts of teachers at the church school to relate every lesson, whatever the subject, to the lordship of Christ and the fallenness of the human race. We cringe as churchfolk go public with their faith, manipulating children and cajoling adults into admitting that the fundamentalists are right, that everyone else is wrong.

There's a sadness to Turner's humor that emerges late in the book, however. Maybe it's the inevitable disillusionment of adolescence or the inevitable breakdown of finite humans striving for a contrived perfection in a semi-public setting. Turner makes occasional vague references to seeking therapy that would seem like jokes if they didn't seem like foreshadowing, and the moment when he discovers that the pastor and elders are conspiring to make the congregation think they're converting more people than they are--cooking the conversion books, so to speak--is almost tragic.

I can't review this memoir without drawing particular attention to Turner's coloring book, both because I'm such a geek about such things and because it's among the more biting passages in the book. Here he uses the unconvential colors of green and orange to fill in Jesus' robes.

"I'm coloring Jesus the same colors as Aqua Man," I said, looking down at my paper. It made perfect sense for Jesus to look like Aqua Man. . . . I was pretty sure his miracles didn't happen telepathically, but he certainly used some kind of super-hero strength to make those fish obey him. . . .

"Just make sure you leave his face white, okay?"

"I was going to." Everybody in the class knew Jesus was white.

Only someone from the inside, with a lingering conviction that the Pastor Nolans and Mrs. Snovers that populate his stories share a common humanity with readers from the outside, could tuck such a scandalous observation into such a book and keep us interested in his characters. They are, like all of us I suspect, often innocent in their own guilt. They remain blissfully unaware of the power they sometimes yield and the harm they sometimes do. Turner is a good humorist in part because he's a good human being, and Churched is a good book because of Turner's conviction: sometimes the talk of faith doesn't live up to the power of the gospel.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

No Mottos, Please, I'm Gen X

I heard a piece this morning on NPR ("Oooh, you're sooooo smarrrt!") about being British, which apparently is a question that generates a certain amount of existential angst these days. Earlier this year, in fact, Parliament deliberated how it could foster a more cohesive British identity among its citizens. The immediate reaction of the general populace was derision, mockery and irony; a London newspaper ran a "British slogan" contest, and among the winning entries were "At least we're not French" and "No mottos, please, we're British."

The Brits, it seems, defy categorization--not in the sense that it's difficult to categorize them but in the sense that they don't like it. But in a global economy that's driven by brands and slogans, ambiguity is a death sentence. But even more pressing, in the mind of British government, is the notion that by not sharing a common identity, Britons don't identify with one another--which means that immigrant communities remain isolated from the established mainstream, and more generally the general populace slowly stops concerning itself with one another. That's the fear, at least.

Around the same time I heard this discussion on NPR ("Yeah, we heard you the first time, Mr. Smartypants") I was flipping through a manuscript about the approach to church and Christian practice that developed in the United States and its distinctiveness from its European ancestors. Not to blow the punchline, but U.S. Christianity foreswore the state-church, hierarchical and tenured church organization of Europe in favor of a more entrepreneurial, democratic, frontiered organization--a development that had the advantages of a more involved laity but the disadvantage of an effective divorce from church history. The American church is less interested in cohesion with its larger, broader context, perhaps, than Britons are with their Britishness. The concern that emerges out of this development is that the Christian church, which ought to be transnational, dis-integrates into isolated tribes, eventually fading from view altogether. That's the fear, at least.

As if this brand confusion wasn't enough, I recently heard a presentation that detailed the differences between how boomers (old people), Gen Xers (really cool people like me) and Millennials (all those punk kids that are stealing all my office mojo) conduct themselves in the workforce--what expectations they bring and how they express their ambition or dissatisfaction. Basically, the younger you are, the more you crave context; and yet the younger you are, the more resistant you are to being categorized. We want to know how we fit, but we don't want to be told where we fit. That's what I call the horns of a dilemma.

Fears and dilemmas; something we all have in common, I suppose. I haven't drawn any conclusions about all this, but when I notice convergence, I like to acknowledge it. Any wisdom for our friends who are British? or Gen X? or boomers? or Millennials? or Christian? Anything?

Monday, September 15, 2008

This Is a Book About Love

For whatever reason, it never occurred to me to write book reviews on Loud Time till this past month. And in fact, I probably wouldn't have done it at all had I not stumbled upon an invitation to review a book in exchange for a free copy of that book. Suddenly I find myself with a stack of books to review, some out of the kindness of my heart, some as a kind of quid pro quo--I'll review yours if you review mine.

This is a review of the latter sort. I stumbled across Larry Shallenberger by accident; he's a regular contributor to Burnside Writers Collective (one of my favorite online magazines) and the husband of someone I went to college with. As it happens, we share a publisher, so we got to talking and decided to review one another's books. I fear that I got the better deal out of the arrangement, as in addition to being a regular contributor to BWC, Larry is on the pastoral staff of a megachurch and so influences tens of hundreds of readers, while I write a blog that is read by my mom. So Mom, have I got a book for you.

Divine Intention is a book about love. It says so right in the book, in one of the more delightfully audacious printed statements I've read in a long time. You'd not necessarily figure out right away that this is a book about love--Larry buries the lead on page 46, and his publisher buries this theme under the perhaps more saleable veneer of a book on the ancient church in contemporary perspective, or, in other words, a book on the book of Acts. But Larry effectively makes the case that the book of Acts itself is a book about love, and if this is a book about that, then this is a book about that too.

Larry takes us through the book of Acts, not systematically but episodically, looking at passages that show a particular act of divine intervention. Acts has a lot of them, from the Day of Pentecost that sent the church out into Judea, to the great persecution that martyred Stephen but sent Philip into Samaria, to the conversion of Paul that ushered the church further out to the ends of the earth. This is not new news; Acts is a well-traveled New Testament book by exegetes of every stripe. Larry is a keen reader of key texts, however, and catches things that I, for one, failed to notice even after he stuck the passage right in front of me. He takes us on an interesting interpretive turn by asking why God intervenes in Acts where he does. As it happens, God intervenes because he is relational, and the relationship of God to his people demands it.

So Jesus warns his followers to expect the Spirit, and on Pentecost the Spirit comes. Stephen rehearses the story of Israel and faces his martyrdom with the assurance that his God is with him, that suffering and even death are not the end of his story. Philip and Peter hear from God that he loves them and that he loves people they might not otherwise think to love. Paul hears from God and is given a dramatic life change and a sober calling. Paul hears again from God in the wake of a strained relationship and finds renewed strength for his mission. God keeps showing that he is there, keeps showing his love for his people.

This is a more radical take on Acts than Larry's gentle writing voice would suggest. He has to be gentle; Larry is a pastor, and he's had to deal with some particularly icky stuff in a few of the churches he's served. He handles these troubles delicately and respectfully--pastorally, I suppose you could say. He rarely strays from his pastoral deckings, to be frank, in the preponderance of talk of "the abundant life," in the tight outline that steers the book, even in the fictitious narratives that lead each chapter.

The character Jonah, a struggling young pastor, is written in the first person as he recounts a monthly encounter with two long-lost friends, each of whom has drifted away from the joy of their earlier life in Christ. This itself is a nice metaphor for the way we so often approach the book of Acts: when we're disillusioned with the church of the twenty-first century--whether for its world-shaking scandals or its petty annoyances--we revisit Acts as a reminder of what the Christian faith once was and perhaps ought to be. But because Jonah is a pastor, and frankly because Jonah is Larry, he can't really haul back and freak out on anybody in the way that I occasionally wished he would. The pastoral garb is a bit of a straitjacket on the energy of the book--probably an appropriate straitjacket; Lord knows I'm not called to the pastorate. I'm also, if I may be so bold, mystified why the fictional narrative, which seems to be working its way to an inevitable resolution, never resolves. Sometimes I think we all need to take a short break--just a short one, mind you--from Donald Miller.

Larry's pastoral reserve notwithstanding, the book is audacious in the way good books ought to be audacious. Right there in the introduction, in the roman-numeral pages so that the heresy-hunters won't be offended by it, is an audacious confession followed by an audacious idea:

Love is the pinnacle of Christian teaching. However, the church has historically evaluated its biblical teachers with a yardstick of doctrinal purity. Little attention has been given to whether or not the teaching inspires greater love in the teaching's listeners. Historically, heretics have been identified by their corrupted ideas. However, if we take Paul seriously, perhaps heresy should rather be measured in terms of love.

What's good for Paul is good for the book of Acts, a love story from start to finish. It's good for us today as well, Larry goes on to show, as we find in Acts not a checklist for being a good Christian but signs and wonders from God that show us how to live well and prepare us for the cost of discipleship--which is to say, they show us how to love.


I would just like to acknowledge that I used the word audacious four times in one paragraph above, which was on purpose, despite the obvious arguments against such an obnoxious repetition.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

N. T. Wright Is a Genius

For some reason, I regularly return to the theological question of the problem of suffering. I myself have led a largely suffering-free life, and I live in the suburbs, where the world's suffering is largely kept from view, only occasionally trotted out on the news as a reminder that we're better off never leaving--even for a little bit.

So you'd think that I, and with me all the millions of folks like me who suffer lightly, wouldn't waste a lot of mental energy worrying about such things. But I do, and many others do as well. And the bad news, I keep discovering and rediscovering, is that there's no answer immediately apparent that will fully satisfy our occasional bouts of curiosity, that will adequately answer the question "Why do people suffer?"

The problem then becomes to answer it for ourselves. And often such solutions do more harm than good. This morning I read from N. T. Wright's biblical commentary John for Everyone, specifically his engagement with the story of a man born blind, then healed by Jesus. This is two stories, to tell the truth: a story of Jesus doing something miraculous, to be sure, but also a story of all kinds of people proving their ignorance, their arrogance. I quote Wright at length:

If something in the world seems'unfair', but if you believe in a God who is both all-powerful, all-loving and all-fair, one way of getting around the problem is to say that it only seems 'unfair', but actually isn't. There was after all some secret sin being punished. This is a comfortable sort of thing to believe if you happen to be well-off, well fed and healthy in body and mind. (In other words, if nobody can accuse you of some secret previous sin.)

Jesus firmly resists any such analysis of how the world is ordered. The world is stranger than that, and darker than that, and the light of God's powerful, loving justice shines more brightly than that. . . .

Good things often happen as a result of good actions (kindness produces gratitude), and bad things often happen through bad actions (drunkenness causes car accidents). But this isn't inevitable. Kindness is sometimes scorned. Some drunkards always get away with it. . . .

At the start of the book of Genesis, God was faced with chaos. He didn't waste time describing the chaos, analysing it or discussing whose fault it was. Instead, he created light; and, following the light, a whole new world. . . .

New creation does happen. Healing does happen. Lives can be transformed. And the question then is the one they asked the man [born blind then healed by Jesus]: how did it happen? How does it happen?

The answer given throughout the gospel is, of course, 'through Jesus'.

That answer isn't really an answer, of course, for the formerly blind man or his skeptical audience or all of us who still occasionally can't sleep through the question of suffering. But it does turn the question on its head: Why do we want to know why? Why do we think we can figure out why? Will it ever be enough to simply trust God to take the chaos we're confronted with and make a transformed world out of it?

Looking back on that last paragraph, I recognize that even the attempt to agree with God by a well-intended, largely suffering-free suburban Christian such as myself comes off as trite, even insufferable. I think the best we can do in the face of suffering is to suffer alongside, to sit in silence with the suffering, and in the words of the patriarch Jacob, to wait for the Lord's deliverance.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Drug User Is a Person in My Neighborhood

Last week a young couple was arrested in my driveway. My wife and I interrupted our card game to watch it happen. What happened was this:

A red SUV was driving slowly back and forth along our street. This struck us as curious. Not long afterward a red SUV pulled into my driveway and between my house and my neighbor's house, effectively blocking us both from leaving. A woman neither of us knew hopped out of the red SUV and walked briskly up to our front door. I got up to answer the door as a police officer pulled into our driveway, effectively blocking the red SUV. The officer struck up a conversation with the woman and the man who had been driving the red SUV.

I will stop there for a moment because I find my reaction to this chain of events embarrassingly funny, in a sad sort of way. I live on a lightly trafficked, suburban residential street with lots of little kids from what my friend respectfully calls "lower middle class" families. We're a working-class suburban community in which the local paper's police blotter is generally a report of illegal parking and red-light running. Despite this atmosphere of utter normalcy, the sight of an unknown young woman pulling into my driveway and approaching my door filled me and my wife with a surprising burst of dread. What could she possibly want? What's going on? What kind of person so brazenly approaches the door of someone she doesn't even know?

I'm reminded of Bowling for Columbine, the documentary film that confronts the gun culture in America and suggests that it arises out of a vague but persistent fear of the Other. I liked the film because I don't like guns. But there I was, fighting bravely my vague but persistent fear of the Other. I would have answered the door, had the office not intervened, but my guard was way up.

Back to the story. The police officer chatted very calmly with the young couple for some time, occasionally reporting something into his two-way radio. Soon enough a second and then a third police car arrived on the scene. The couple was split up for separate interviews, the young man with the male officer, the young woman with the female officer, while the third officer pulled out what turned out to be an evidence kit. Not long afterward, first the young man and then the young women were searched and found to be in possession of heroin. They were placed in handcuffs and tucked into the backs of separate police cars, and a search of their red SUV yielded more heroin.

At one point one of the officers came to our door to advise us of what was happening, confirming that we didn't know the young couple and assuring us that the red SUV would be towed off our property very soon. We speculated that their red SUV was the same red SUV that had been driving slowly back and forth through our neighborhood, although after the police left one of my neighbors said it was definitely not the same red SUV.

Once the police had left the men of the neighborhood had an impromptu meeting in front of my house. There was no beer involved. I learned more about the history of the block in that fifteen minutes than I'd learned in seven years, including the tale of Jimmy Williams (not his real name), who had sold drugs for years two doors down from me in the house now owned by the Stoners (their real name, I swear). All the men laughed about the evening's events, and the two men who work from home reassured us (and, I think, warned us) that they were keeping an eye on the neighborhood and were wise to anything fishy that went on. Then we all went home.

With time I started to think about another young couple I met this summer, these two on the far side of their arrest for drug possession. I met them the morning after their first night ever at a homeless shelter. They were obviously scared, bewildered, unschooled in the ways and means of the homeless. Their family had rejected them and they didn't know what to do with themselves. I thought about that couple and I wondered whether I would see this evening's couple at the shelter next, and how I would welcome them there after being so afraid to welcome them at my home, and what kind of mercy I would offer them there after witnessing them receiving justice at home. I wondered what she would have said as I opened the door of my home to her, and what she'll say when I hand her the day's breakfast before she hits the streets.

I don't know really how to end a post like this. I find myself praying for those two couples, who are too young to anticipate the outcome of their decisions. I find myself praying for police officers whose very ordinary, suburban patrols are occasionally interrupted by incidents that require great courage and even greater wisdom. I find myself praying, which I suppose is good.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Eat, Pray, Love, Repeat

It's Labor Day, and to celebrate I watched Oprah. Her guest was Elizabeth Gilbert--not from TV's Little House on the Prairie; that's Melissa Gilbert. Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the enormously successful memoir of Eat Pray Love, which recounts her travels through Italy, India and Bali in search of transcendence. Apparently she found it, and now bazillions of middle-aged women are finding it too.

I haven't read Eat Pray Love, so I write this post only as an observer of the book's impact on Oprah's audience. I should also mention that I know a number of women who found the book enormously appealing, and I tend to trust their instincts and insights. So I'm not critiquing the book. What I want to comment on is the elevation of this memoir to the status of "Bible," to quote at least one woman in Oprah's audience. I'd like to argue that it's not Gilbert's achievement as some kind of zen master but her aptitude as a writer that makes this book so significant in the lives of so many people.

Not everyone, the author freely acknowledges, can make the kind of pilgrimage she made--four months in Italy, a similar jaunt to India and a final stint in Bali. She comes from the ranks of American aristocracy, and so can afford the luxury of the extravagant spiritual quest. Moreover, not all the ideas in the book that have captured the imaginations of so many readers are especially novel. Oprah devoted a fair bit of space to Gilbert's concept of building "a wall of no's" in order to protect space for reflection and self-discovery, but that idea fits very comfortably alongside countless voices arguing against a lifestyle of excess or busyness. And when pressed Gilbert defined God not by her own insight but by using the language of the Gnostics--a socially acceptable modern fundamentalism.

Gilbert actually struck me as quite humble. She sums up her book as a "ladder of words that I built to pull myself out of a very deep hole," and she is honored by the notion that her ladder of words is now enabling other women to facilitate their own escape. It's that ladder of words that, I think, is the unique contribution of this book.

Gilbert is a great writer in both an aesthetic and an ethical sense. She articulates things that other people struggle and fail to articulate, and so she establishes a solidarity with (and among) her readers that they might not otherwise have established. She also encapsulates exotic, sometimes arcane ideas into wearable language, so that her transcendent experience has an elegant earthiness to it. Above all, while many of us are fearful of the kind of honesty and transparency that a pilgrimage--both in the geographic and the spiritual sense--demands, she is willing to be an icon of honesty; she observes herself thinking and living in a way that emboldens her audience to observe first her and then themselves.

I'm troubled by some of the testimonials that came from Oprah's audience. This roomful of women had each absorbed the book, and those with the best transformative stories were given a microphone. Most of them went from reading the book to writing themselves a "bucket list." From the comfort of my family room, the overall message of these testimonials amounted to an embrace of self-absorption. The one testimonial that involved self-sacrifice--volunteer work on the gulf coast and in tribal Africa--gave equal attention to jumping out of a plane and running a half-marathon. Check, check, check and check.

These lifestyle changes were based on the author's (I think) very wise counsel to ask themselves each day "What do I really, really, really want." But that question doesn't confront us so much as it cajoles us. What if what someone really, really, really wants can only be achieved by the neglect or the exploitation of another? But even if I really, really, really want some ice cream, to then get some ice cream is not to achieve transcendence or even know myself better; it doesn't advance a quest but actually shuts it down prematurely. A second question I'm not sure that Gilbert offered or that her audience pursued, but that I think is perhaps more essential on the pilgrimage to the self and a more ethical posture toward the world is this: "Why do I really, really, really want it?"