Monday, April 28, 2008

Quiet on the Set

This weekend I heard a fellow on the radio make the intriguing observation that all communication is self-serving. I was just starting to mull over the notion as he went on to explain, at length, how this insight led him to regularly spend the weekend not speaking with his wife or life partner or some such. He was still rattling on about his retreats of silence when I parked the car and turned off the radio.

It strikes me that, in his case at least, communication does seem to be self-serving. Communicating this idea to his wife got him whole weekends at a time free of the hassle of having to talk to people and, more important perhaps, being talked to by people. Communicating the ironic notion of a retreat of silence got him on the radio and will likely get him at least a magazine article, if not a book contract. If he plays his cards right, he could parlay his one interesting idea into becoming the next Morgan Spurlock.

It further strikes me that, in this guy´s case at least, even not communicating is self-serving. By not speaking he turned an intriguing idea into a curious event, curious enough to get the media to pay attention to him-even though his curious event is common practice throughout the monastic tradition, for example. He´s not alone in his practice of self-serving silence, though. People keep their mouths shut for their own benefit all the time. We keep silence in mixed company to avoid sounding foolish; we keep silence in unfamiliar environments to remain anonymous or enigmatic; we keep silence in the face of injustice to avoid the inconvenience that speaking out creates.

I keep silence all the time-not that you´d notice. I have a loud laugh and a voice that carries, and when I have a captive audience that is easily impressed, I can go on for hours. But when speaking up or speaking out involves risk, I´m inclined to keep my mouth shut, because I´m risk-averse and fiercely protective of my reputation.

There is, however, a redemptive aspect of communication. Without communication we can´t reach consensus. Without communication we can´t forgive or be forgiven. Without communication we never hear or offer good news, we never call for or are called to repentance, we never experience release from the prison of our own self-centeredness. That prison is the Me-Ville I´m seeking deliverance from, and to borrow from the apostle Paul, such deliverance is not a matter of talk, not even a matter of silence, but of power. (1 Cor 4:20).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Oh, Canada

I had a childhood fascination with Canada. I'm not sure why. My aunt lived in Prince George, British Columbia (PCBC) for a good chunk of my youth, and I like my aunt quite a lot, so that may have had something to do with it. I know I liked the Canadian flag; it had a simple, monochromatic elegance that appealed to me, and a maple leaf still strikes me as an endearing icon. I used to hang the Canadian flag in my bedroom, which I suppose might have called my patriotism into question back in the day. I knew who Pierre Trudeau was--the prime minister of Canada, not the creator of the comic strip Doonesbury. I celebrated the notion of socialized medicine. I subscribed to the comic book Alpha Flight, the serial drama of a team of superheroes whose exploits were underwritten by the Canadian government. I owned a tape by Glass Tiger--the band who recorded "Don't Forget Me When I'm Gone." Yeah, I had a thing for Canada.

You'd think such a fascination would translate into a real comprehension of the country, but you'd be wrong. I trip up on the geography of the place, and I couldn't name the current PM. My spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak, eh? Sorry.

Last night my ignorant appreciation for Canada in the abstract was on display as I met with the sales team from Cook Canada--the folks who will be selling Deliver Us from Me-Ville in the great white north. You might expect that we would meet over a meal of salmon and back-bacon and Sasquatch jerky, but you would be wrong. We met at a table for ten at P. F. Chang, not far from my house. I don't know about them, but I had a great time, even though I chose my seat poorly and didn't get to interact much at all with about half the table. I suspect I learned more about how a sales team that spends much of their time on the road apart from each other cultivates a sense of togetherness than I did about how their government's prescription drug program works, but that in itself was a great experience: I learned from the Cook sales team a little more than I knew before about what makes for good friendship.

In Deliver Us from Me-Ville the trajectory of the discussion is, roughly, from the kingdom of self to the kingdom of God, from "Me-Ville" to "Thee-Ville," if you're feeling cheeky. Along the way we come to what might be called "We-Ville," that place where we seek the security of one another. It's an important mile-marker, because God is drawing us into the community of his people and establishing his kingdom as a fellowship. But it's also a temptation toward idolatry; in the perceived absence of a God we can't see, we make God's church our surrogate, and inevitably we are disillusioned when a church that can't bear such a burden lets something drop.

Bonhoeffer says that God in his grace "speedily shatters such dreams," that our disillusionment is part of our spiritual development. On the far side of such trauma, if we keep moving, we can come to recognize that true friends take friendship seriously but don't take themselves or one another too seriously. We leave room for one another to be ourselves, and we keep our eyes trained on the invisible God out in front, who still has a destination in mind for us.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

It's All About Me-Ville

This week, everything I've seen and done has reminded me of Deliver Us from Me-Ville. This week I joined a small group of authors for a round of manuscript Bible study (exploring a passage from the Bible without the distractions of chapter numbers, verse numbers or other indicators of context) looking at John 1:35-51, a passage from the Gospel of John that figures prominently in my chapter on community. This week in my free time I corresponded with a few churches and bookstores about doing something related to the book with them. This week I heard from a bookselling group in Canada about the possibility of getting together to discuss the book. Last night I attended the DVD release party for Living Waters, a play I was in last year that wound up being source material for the introduction to the book. I'm on the precipice of becoming that obnoxious author who can't shut up about his book, who won't leave his poor publicity department or his unwitting audiences alone. Now that the book's release is only a few weeks away, it is, apparently, all about Me-Ville.

I find that funny--I'm not going to lie to you. My friends in publishing every so often talk about the "level 5 author," the author who, like the level 5 leader in the book Good to Great, is wildly enthusiastic about the task at hand but shockingly evasive when it comes to taking the credit for success. The level 5 leader is marked by humility and commitment, and as such the level 5 leader, or author or actor or plumber or whatever, is about as easy to find as Sasquatch or the source of that weird smell in my office.

This week, however, I've also been reading and discussing Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues, a journey through the Lord of the Rings in search of character qualities to emulate, written by a friend of mine. The section we discussed this week is about leadership, but it includes such odd topics as mirth and submission. The interesting thing about Tolkien's books and Mark Smith's treatment is the awareness of both that virtues are not necessarily housed where we might expect to find them. In Tolkien's creation, kings regularly need correction, and Hobbits often prove to be heroes. And yet Hobbits themselves often fall short, and kings regularly prove their mettle. The books are about journeys both physical and developmental--an entire cast of characters, an entire universe, really, moving awkwardly and slowly but resolutely from where they are to a better place, one that improves their own lot while serving the far greater good.

I simply can't claim to be a level 5 author. But I suppose I can strive toward becoming a level 5 author, as long as people cut me some slack: I imagine it will be a slow, awkward process for all of us.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I'm My Own Copilot

Today I saw, on the back of a vanity car, surrounding a vanity plate, a slogan that seemed particularly contextually appropriate:

It's all about me.


I remember an ad campaign from some time ago in which a practical couple drove a practical car around the city, passing flashy cars populated by people who shouted their idiosyncracies through megaphones: from the sportscar, the bleach-blonde woman declared "I crave attention!" From the oversized sport-utility vehicle, the blow-dried, manicured businessman proclaimed "I have a small . . ." The couple, meanwhile, have branded themselves: in a world of vanity, they are pragmatic and sensible, and fiercely proud of it.

I guess people identify with their cars, and some go so far as to make statements with their cars. I do this myself: the Z from my spandex bodysuit shows through the window of my hatchback, helping me distinguish my Hyundai from every other, and letting people know that there's a geek of the highest order within walking distance of the parking lot. But it strikes me today, having seen this car from behind, that we inhabit a culture predisposed toward the exaltation of the self.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Moving People

I'm just back from a cruise, one that took us from Galveston, Texas, to Cozumel and Progreso on the Yucatan Peninsula, and back to Galveston. You might say I ate my way through the Gulf of Mexico; that's certainly what my scale seems to be saying.

It struck me on this cruise that tourism is, to a great extent, a people-moving industry. American Airlines moved us through its check-in terminal, the security lines, the gate, the air, the baggage claim. We went wherever they told us or their retractible line designator directed us. (Continental Airlines, incidentally, moved us from Texas back home, although American moved us to Continental, over the course of ten hours in the Houston airport.)

Carnival Cruise Lines took over from baggage claim and moved us by bus to Galveston and by a labyrinthine passage of retractable line designators and gangways onto the ship. They moved us up and down, fore and aft, through an impossibly large though comparatively small cruise ship (the "Ecstasy") so that we'd be out of their hair while they cleaned portions of the ship (including our teensy-weensy cabin) and out of each other's hair during densely populated events such as dinner or theatrical revues. They moved us through buffet lines and beverage stations, directing our paths inevitably toward the shops and casino. They deposited us on the shores of Cozumel and Progreso right where the cab drivers and street vendors wanted us to land. From there we were moved from the pier to the beach, or from the pier to the ruins of Chichen Itza, depending on the port of call. We went, as usual, wherever they moved us.

On the cruise I began reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen, a gift from a friend I'm currently editing. I wonder if it should be surprising to me, given the context of my reading, that I identified more with the cattle and chickens in the book than the people who were harvesting the corn or raising the livestock. Even those farmers and ranchers, however, are being moved--not by the tourism industry but by a market economy built on a shaky foundation: a cult of perpetual and exponentially increasing consumption. The market demands ever more and ever cheaper product, so the producers systematically strip out ecological complexity in favor of mass-producible monocultures; the government and industry sponsor processes that allow for production and distribution at an enormous scale; consumers adapt their eating habits to embrace, as the author suggests, a diet constructed largely of corn and petroleum.

Tom Sine, in his book The New Conspirators, characterizes the global econonmy as a "ship of fools," and I think now, on the far side of this cruise, I get the analogy. We've happily ceded control of our destiny to forces we've unwittingly created. We go where our free market direct us; we do what our corn tells us.