Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pentecosted!

My friends Joel and Eric are each preaching for the first time ever today. One is a director of worship, the other a youth director. What follows might be appropriate for either of them.

***

There are at least a couple of times in the Bible where being filled with the Holy Spirit is juxtaposed with getting drunk. One of them is on the occasion of one of the Great Days of the Church—Pentecost, celebrated this year on May 31. We don’t (typically) celebrate by getting drunk; we celebrate in the same way the first church did: by being “all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). And maybe we continue the celebration the way they did: not by getting drunk but by getting “pentecosted.”

That’s how Walter Brueggemann described it in his 2001 Pentecost sermon. On the day of Pentecost—when faithful Jews celebrate the blessing of Torah, given to them by God in the wake of their exodus from Egypt—the Christian church received the blessing of the Holy Spirit. They were now a new people, with a new commission and correspondingly new boldness.

Prior to the institution of Pentecost, the Jews were still a slave people—recently delivered, of course, but having no independent identity. Torah changed that: the Jews were reminded on Pentecost that they were the people of God, with the privileges and responsibilities that attend to such a high calling. Having received the great blessing of the Ten Commandments and the Levitical code, they went back to the task at hand: walking aimlessly through the desert.

That’s sort of what Pentecost is for the Christian church. Much is made of the spectacle of the day: mighty rushing winds, tongues of fire descending, a cacophony of voices sounding a single message, a mass conversion to life in Christ. But having received this great blessing, they went back to the task at hand. Here’s how Brueggemann describes it:
Pentecost may be flamboyant and dramatic. But it was enacted by the Spirit upon a receptive group of disciples who took their place in the body of disciplined believers. The text moves from the exotic to the daily, from imagery to disciplines. Who would have thought,
•that apostles’ teaching is a match for a bloody moon?
•that table fellowship is answer to a dark sun?
•that daily bread is a powerful response to blood, fire, and smoky mist?
But it is!

In the Christian calendar, Pentecost is followed by Ordinary Time, the weeks and months that separate such major events as the coming of the Spirit and the advent of Christ. I think that’s appropriate, a big picture made little in our daily living. The hours and days that pass between such major events as the Eucharist and the Passing of the Peace are no less sacred simply because they are “ordinary.” On Pentecost we get “pentecosted”; that’s all well and good. In the days and weeks that follow we are being discipled, then, because we remain disciples. In a similar way, on any given Sunday we may be “getting churched”, but Monday through Saturday we are being the church.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

R Is for Retreat, Part Three

Last weekend I helped to staff a high school retreat for my church. This is the third of three posts about it. The first two were about static and silence. This one's about near-death experiences, or something like that.

***

I get it. I do. The challenge of a ropes course is to do outlandish, unnecessary things in a controlled environment. The challenge helps you to find your way through some of the impulses and inhibitions that keep you from stretching yourself beyond what's comfortable into what's creative, constructive and in some cases transformational. I'll be honest: the chance to climb around on a bunch of ropes high off the ground was what tipped me over the edge to help staff this retreat.

My first challenge, it turns out, was to sit there quietly, watching a bunch of high schoolers figure out how to get a bunch of stuffed animals from point A to point B, how to get everyone over a five-foot-high suspended log, how to move altogether through a web of bungee cords without touching any of them. I wasn't to offer any assistance, only encouragement. This took two and a half hours. I think it's fair to say I failed my first challenge; I was encouraging enough, but I was far from quiet, laughing loudly at things that went wrong, making jokes as the mood struck me, and one time, whispering a suggestion to one of the students. It wasn't even a good idea, in retrospect: good thing he ignored me.

My second challenge was to stand there and wait while the rest of the group slowly made their way through the high ropes course, climbing on rope bridges seventy-five feet above the ground, latching themselves onto anchor posts and climbing trees, that sort of thing. The camp staff were one adult short to catch and release kids at the far end of the zip line, so it became my job to move a ladder back and forth on a track so the kids didn't slam into it as they zipped by but had someplace to come to rest when their momentum ran out. Originally the plan was for me to switch places with another adult so that I could climb the course as well, but a minor student crisis became that adult's latest challenge, so I stayed put. Challenge two took about an hour and a half.

The final challenge of the ropes course was the "Leap of Faith." You climb a twenty-four-foot-high telephone pole, stand up at the top, then jump off and ring a suspended cowbell in triumph. Your team serves as your belayer, holding on to a rope attached to your back so that if you slip, they stop your fall. It's safe, if you consider placing your life in the hands of ten kids with ADHD safe.

Our guide suggested that, when we're at the top and ready to jump, we count to C and then do it: "A, B, Ceeeeeee!" That way the belayers know when to tighten their grip. I went second-to-last, handily scurrying my way up the post despite being horribly out of shape and much shorter than the climber those footholds were designed for. The climbing, it turned out, was easy. What got me was standing up.

I had one unsteady foot in place and was standing and bringing my other foot up when I lost my balance. I suppose I could have leaned down and resteadied myself, but I panicked. In the process, I forgot to count. Instead, I shouted "Oh, crap." Then I jumped.

The guide tells me that I also shouted "Ceeeeeee!" as a sort of half-hearted, half-rational attempt to alert my belayers to my current circumstance, but by then nothing I did would matter. It was out of my control; I had already jumped. I missed the bell.

Fortunately my belayers make a good team. They quickly recognized what was going on and stopped my drop before it started. THen they lowered me down like a limp fish, all of us laughing all the way.

I won't forget this experience, but I struggle to figure out what lesson might be behind it. I've been on the periphery of youth ministry long enough to know that there must be one, but I haven't narrowed it down yet. Here are some of the bottom-line ideas I've mulled over; feel free to post your own.

Sometimes even mundane and necessary things can push you beyond your comfort zone into something transformative.

If you're going to do something outlandish and unnecessary, you'd better learn first to keep your cool.

Some people will help you even when you don't help them help you. Those people are the people you want around you at all times.

"Oh" is to "A" as "Crap" is to "B." But whatever you do, don't forget "Ceeeeeeee!"

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

R Is for Retreat, Part Two

This is the second of three posts about my chaperoning experience at a youth retreat this weekend. The first was about static; the second is about silence.

***

There have been a handful of times when the youth of my church have shushed me. The most memorable was while my wife was being ordained as a deacon; I tried to change the setting on my digital camera from its loud shutter-like sound to silence, but as it turns out, there is no silent option, only a catalog of options including a voice shouting "All right!" It also turns out that the camera offers a sample of each option as you click through it; my camera shouted "All right!" about seven times in response to my increasing panic, before an exasperated high schooler grabbed it from my hands and shut it up.

The most recent time when the youth of my church confronted my noisiness was during this past weekend's night hike. We walked into the pitch black at around 10:30pm, assured by our guides that there were no wild animals out to get us, and that in fact the largest wild animals in the area were a flock of wild turkeys. This reassurance caused me to giggle and make repeated jokes about zombie turkeys gobbling menacingly in our ears, and ultimately offered the group a flock of its post-trip catch-phrases: "Gobblicious," "Viva la gobble" and other variants. But I digress.

We were invited by our guides to keep silence as we walked. I held up the rear of the train of sixteen people trudging through the wet grass and mud, tripping along uneven paths and stumbling over loose gravel. That size group, in those circumstances, will not shut up: this I know for sure. The further into the woods we got, the more surreptitious hand-holding I and the other adults observed, the more suppressed shrieks and cocky claims of assistance shouted back and forth, the more funny the whole thing became to me. Two of these kids, I would estimate, are temperamentally predisposed to go forty-five minutes in the dark without talking. The rest were unreservedly loud. And yet, by the end of the trip, they blamed me and the youth director for making all the noise. Some of them even said that the night hike was the best part of the trip, but would have been better if he and I had kept our yappers shut.

I will admit that I can get a bit chatty, and in situations I find humorous I can find it particularly difficult to stop making jokes. I just think the whole thing was doomed to failure from the beginning. Too many people; too wired from a day of stealing flags from one another, listening to poignant power-pop songs, and climbing ropes far above the surface of the earth; too clustered together along a path that was too narrow for the group's size and too unkept for a hike in the dark: all these factors conspired to make a loud night hike a foregone conclusion.

That doesn't matter, in my opinion, because the forest was loud enough on its own. I had observed that by myself already, in the early morning hours before breakfast. The hike guide rightly observed that much of our experience is attended to by manufactured sounds--my carful of high schoolers' trip-long search for static provided ample evidence of that cultural fact. We have become accustomed to ambient noise, so much so that silence is uncomfortable, a problem we subconsciously or even consciously set out to solve. But once we embrace a period of silence, once we start to consider that maybe it's not so much a problem as it is an opportunity, our ears adjust and we begin to hear the ambient noise that the world beyond us is already making.

I discovered before breakfast on the first day that the camp is--or at least seems--louder than my homelife, when the TV and the iPod are off and the dishwasher or clothes dryer aren't running and the phone isn't ringing. Sitting by myself at camp I heard the sonic backdrop of birds in the air, bugs in my ear, a donkey in the distance, probably the occasional "Gobble gobble" of any number of turkeys. The hills were alive, it seemed, with the sound of living, breathing things.

The camp seemed louder than home at least in part because I didn't control the volume: I couldn't turn it off or on, up or down. I was subject to the camp's ambience, possessed by it. There's no great profundity buried in that observation, other than perhaps that I'm not alone in the universe, nor am I the center of it. That donkey wasn't braying to get my attention; those turkeys weren't gobbling to find out how I was doing. They were living their lives, making their way through their existence, sounding out quite naturally in conversation with their immediate environments. Quite honestly, none of the noisemakers who called the camp home ever seemed to shut up.

One of the values put forth in taking a silent night hike is that you'll hear the sounds of the woods and come to appreciate them differently. In other words, you walk in faith that while you will yourself to shut up, the woods will not respond in kind. It may be one of the uniquenesses of being human that we can choose--not out of survival instinct or general exhaustion but as a matter of will--to keep silence. And maybe that discipline of practicing our humanness, of keeping silent from time to time just because we can, is itself worth the effort.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

R Is for Retreat, Part One

Over Memorial Day weekend I helped staff a retreat for the high school students at my church. I've gotten to know several of them over the years, helping at junior high retreats or serving as a confirmation sponsor, that sort of thing. This retreat was somewhat accidental--for the youth director, a last-minute need for an extra adult male (and I am nothing if not extra adult), and for me, a weekend with no fixed plans. I took notes over the course of the weekend, I think about three blog posts' worth. Here's the first.

***

There was a time--I remember it--when part of the adventure of a road trip was finding something to listen to. You'd rock out to your favorite radio station till you got too far from home, then you'd scan frequencies, listening for something good. Along the way you'd learn bits and pieces about the region you were driving through: radio stations along the Canadian border report weather conditions in degrees celsius, not fahrenheit; the deep South has lots and lots of radio preachers; Iowa likes classic rock; and so on and so forth. Of course, you might have thought ahead and brought along your favorite 8-tracks or cassettes or CDs, but those were often last resorts. You were on a trek, both literally and sonically.

That time has come and gone. Having embraced the insights of Andy Crouch's Culture Making, I often think of the iPod as a cultural artifact, analyzing it through an anthropological grid. And one of the many implications of the shift in music culture from physical product to data file management is the end of the aural pilgrimage, that parallel auditory tourism described above that accompanied road trips of yesteryear. There was a time--I remember it--when a carload of travelers would scan the airwaves, looking for a coherent frequency broadcasting something intelligible to sing along to or be edified by. That time has come and gone. Now we hit the road searching for static.

We search for static because with supplemental technology the iPod can broadcast onto unused airwaves. Even this innovation is slightly outdated; my carload of kids was devastated to learn that I didn't have a USB port to plug their All American Rejects/Nickelback/Anberlin/Black Eyed Peas playlists directly into my car's sound system. Fortunately for them, one kid was used to such archaisms as a 2002 Hyundai Elantra GT and had brought his port with him. We plugged it into the cigarette lighter, found sufficient static, and all of a sudden: "Boom Boom Pow."

I loathe the Black Eyed Peas, to be perfectly honest, and one of the kids in my car failed his weekend challenge to convince me that Nickelback has talent. I, meanwhile, had a carful of my own CDs, and it was my car, after all; but after I played one song from my archives I was evicted from the DJ's seat. I suspect there's something developmental about musical taste; some day far into the future one or more of these kids will probably be muttering under breath about the cookie-cutter noise that the adolescents in their lives are making them suffer through, about how they could stand a little exposure to the artistry of songs like "Peanut Butter Jelly Time." I think about that and laugh a little. But I hope I'm wrong about the death of the road trip listening tour. You don't necessarily find great rewards as you search unfamiliar airwaves, but there's reward in the searching, I think; and in any case, there's something pathetically postmodern about searching for static. I'll bet a preacher somewhere in the south is yelling about it right now.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Discipleship of the Wit

I wrote this in October 2003 for Strangely Dim. The ethics of humor have been on my mind lately, though, so I thought I'd resurface it.

***

Sometimes I’m so funny that I feel guilty about it. Other times I’m so unfunny that I feel the need to be forgiven.

I take humor seriously, perhaps too seriously. For example, how can I be funny without being mean-spirited? Is there a greater purpose to an off-hand humorous remark, or am I wasting my breath when I go for a quick laugh? Do we hide our true beliefs in humor, and if so, should we confront people when they are joking around?

But humor is necessarily fast-paced, action-packed. We prize the quick-witted, who draw humor out of a comment or situation without delay. How many of us have reflected on a conversation only to come up with a potentially classic but now-useless one-liner? One character on the television show Seinfeld spent an entire episode orchestrating events so that he could use his one-liner-come-lately on his rival, only to be one-upped barely a breath mark after he finally made his play. Timing is everything to humor; there’s no time to reflect on it.

Fundamentally, humor is a means to an end. “A cheerful heart has a continual feast,” says the writer of Proverbs 15:15, and what could be wrong about a continual feast? Only gluttony, perhaps, or maybe feasting while others are being starved. Oops—it seems even a cheerful heart is an ethical matter. A morally responsible person must come to terms with how humor can be used without being abused.

What strikes you as funny? What’s so funny about these things? We need to look deeper than “such-and-such makes me laugh” to understand what’s happening to us and around us when we pursue humor. Humor is prophetic in its own way; whether we want it to or not, our humor has an impact on our community that must be measured against our own self-interest. There is a time for laughter, most certainly, but there is a time for no laughter.

Humor properly understood gives us insight into who we are and who we ought to be, and points us to a middle ground between delusional arrogance and debilitating self-deprecation. When we can identify what is silly in and around us, we can begin to address such absurdities without defensiveness and continue to grow into the person and people God made us to be. Humor also makes us laugh, by the way, which makes for a nice side-effect.

I’ll close with my wife’s favorite joke. You’ll probably groan, but you’ll also probably grin.

Q: What should you say when the Statue of Liberty sneezes?
A: God bless America!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Culture Making on a Cruise Ship

It's embarrassing how long it took me to read Andy Crouch's Culture Making; I've been waiting for, and talking up, his book since first hearing him speak about it a couple of years before it came out. But time got the best of me, I'm afraid, and Culture Making kept getting supplanted on my end table by more time-sensitive reading. What I needed was some big blocks of uninterrupted time to read it, and that meant leaving my office, my home, the land that I lub. I needed to read Culture Making on a cruise ship.

Cruise ships are not quite the cultural dead end that Crouch describes in his book--the kind of life-diminishing, soul-destroying calamity that can only be described as tragedy or mortal sin. Cruise ships are not so ambitious. You board a cruise ship to indulge superficial interests in Caribbean countries, or to experience carefully supervised adventure excursions, or to enjoy performances that reality-television judges reference when they want to insult someone, or to eat more than one lobster at a time, or to drink fruity drinks to excess. Reading about our mandate, as men and women created in the image of God, to create and cultivate what is life-giving and God-honoring with a slot-machine soundtrack in the background, with free sushi to the left and free stir-fry to the right, and with no land in sight, is a carefully supervised adventure in absurdity.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Crouch is a great writer and passionate about his topic--two ingredients for an important book. There are other ingredients, of course, including some sort of commissioning for the reader and enough intellectual stimulation to motivate the reader into the commission. This book has that as well; I daresay there's going to be a glut of freshly made culture in the wake of this book's release.

I could have lived without a fair bit of Crouch's biblical material; is it really OK to say that? It was important, I suppose, given his thesis (and his publisher, which, full disclosure, is my employer) to establish definitively that culture-making is a theme that runs throughout the Bible and in fact is at the center of its beginning and its end. But six chapters and an interlude, all with a conspicuous theme and tightly controlled vocabulary to reinforce that theme, made me feel a bit like I was being brainwashed. Keep in mind, however, that I was reading with the rhythmic ding-ding, la-la sounds of a casino ringing in my ears. Those joints are designed to hypnotize you. I'm not discounting the thesis of Crouch's biblical material, and I think he made his case pretty effectively, and any assessment of the cultural mandate that can be truly called evangelical had better have a lot of Bible in it. I'm simply wondering if he could have done it in two or three chapters, so I could have gotten on to my second pizza of the day.

I'm a populist, and apparently so are the majority of people who take cruises these days. The mystique of cruises as the domain of the aristocracy, established throughout the history of film and contemporary theater and literature, has given way to Disney-fied package vacationing--carefully supervised opulence from embarkation to disembarkation. I should say at this point that I've taken five cruises, for reasons articulated above but shamelessly reiterated here: (1) a chance to get away from it all, (2) without forsaking the opportunity to eat constantly without remorse.

I mention this to state unequivocally that, while I'm a fan of culture making and Culture Making, Crouch is substantially more cultured than me-I-mean-I. So while I salute his emphasis on acting locally, conscious of our context, and while I admire his model of 3-12-100 as the essential cast of characters for a cultural innovation, and while I appreciate his strained contention that culture making was not restricted to people of Crouch's ilk and pedigree, I was mostly glad for this offhand comment: "There will be French fries as well as haute cuisine at the great and final Feast" (p. 172). God has not cherry-picked East Coasters and Ivy Leaguers alone to create and cultivate the good in his creation; he invites each and all of us to make something of this world he's made.

OK, that's enough for now; time for American Idol.

I Fight Authority, Authority Always Wins

I wrote this a few months before my first book came out. It strikes me in rereading it that perhaps my discomfort with authority as conventionally understood has less to do with a generation gap and more to do with the thrust of history; in electing Barack Obama president we ended a long run of presidents with primarily executive, not legislative experience. In fact both major candidates for president last year were legislators, not governors as seven of the previous eight presidential campaigns had produced. It's possible that not only I but the entire country is suffering from authority fatigue. I maintain, however, a sense bordering on conviction that how we understand authority must necessarily change.

***

I guess I need to be concerned for my reputation. My editor is telling me to be more "authoritative"—less deferential to competing and critical voices not only in my writing but in my casual conversations. People need to be given confidence, the argument goes, that whoever calls them to follow along knows where they're going to wind up and what they'll encounter along the way.

Here's my problem, though: I'm thoroughly Gen X. I ride the slacker waves that birthed, among other things, the song "I'm a Loser, Baby (So Why Don't You Kill Me?)" Let's just say I'm not comfortable with the concept of authority—at least as authority is commonly understood.

"The authorities" are the ones who come get you when you've done something wrong. Their opinions are incontrovertible and their decisions decisive. Authority in this sense is a thoroughly modern concept—patented property of the Baby Boomers. No wonder I resist it.

Still, authority has the word author written right there in it. So if I want to claim the one, I'll have to contend with the other.

I brainstormed a list of what I might convincingly claim authority over in the minds of my Boomer friends:

 self-promotion
 underachievement
 humor as defense mechanism
 musical snobbery
 sinning

Rereading this piece, I'm starting to have my doubts about that first one, though I think I can now make a strong case for being named chief of sinners. Nevertheless, with a resume like this you can understand why I favor a more nuanced understanding of authority.

My preferred model comes from the U.S. House of Representatives. You don't necessarily get to Congress because you know Arabic or have secured cheap prescription medication for your octogenarian parents. You get to Congress mainly because you've convinced a plurality of the population that they’re safe authorizing you to speak and act on their behalf.

That’s a whole different ball of authorial wax. Rather than dictating to their subjects—“Respect my authority!” in the language of South Park—people of authority under this model are accountable to their constituents. They are obligated to responsibly represent the needs and wishes of their audience no matter what they come across. They govern with the consent of the governed.

Maybe I’m making too big a deal out of this. It’s not like I’m writing foreign policy or security codes for the Department of Defense. I write about stuff like comic books and television and eating with the wrong fork. But we’ve become a culture that wants immediate, authoritative answers, even though many of our questions can’t really be answered immediately or authoritatively. If you want to know the meaning of life, you won’t turn to a dictionary or a phone book; you’ll start out on a quest that likely won’t end.

A quest like that can be humbling and perplexing—not something that cultivates authoritarian impulses in people. We need to commission people willing to embark on such a quest and brave the confusion it engenders, authorizing them to report back whatever they discover.

Hmmm. Authorized confusion. I could commit to that.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Requiem for the News--Part Three

My uncle Pete sends me comic strips. On the surface that's not so unusual; lots of people share comic strips with me; they usually have something to do with superheroes or narcissism or other topics that I'm known to be amused by. But Pete's the only one who doesn't hand me mildly crumpled, carefully cut slivers of paper when he wants me to laugh at something he's read; Pete is the only one who sends me a link to the strip online--another marker of the obsolescence chasing the newspaper industry.

I don't see Pete everyday; I'm lucky if I see him once or twice a year. And yet Pete's comic strips are always more current when they come to me than anyone else's, because I don't see hardly anyone everyday. And while my other friends and family are carefully archiving strips to hand-deliver to me whenever we might encounter one another once again, Pete's are there waiting for me in my in-box whenever the mood strikes; one click and I'm in on the joke.

That means that the strips Pete sends me (and I'm not dogging on anyone else who brings me strips) aren't based on a caricature of who I am--"Dave will like this; he's a comic book geek"--but rather on what Pete's observed me thinking about recently. Pete occasionally reads this blog and the other one; he hears what I've posted to Facebook secondhand. Sometimes what I'm thinking proves resonant with what he's thinking, and what some comic strip writer is thinking. So Pete participates in my ruminations by sending me something in the moment. Like this one, related to the decline of the newspaper industry, or this one, related to the same. Both are related to where my head's been this week in this series of requiem. As Pete observed, "There is apparently a theme."

Without comic strips, we never would have had the comic book superheroes I love so well, so while I don't make a habit of reading them, I have a great respect and fondness for the medium. The comic strip has always been associated with the newspaper, such that the big break for many a cartoonist was to get dedicated space in their local paper, and the big aspiration was for broader syndication. When my parents lived in Dallas, Texas, their daily paper had three pages of strips. Now, however, the comic strip has escaped the confines of print, to great effect; they're self-syndicating in the way that Pete employs them, and they allow for more dynamic reading, as, for example, with Christianity Today's occasional "Next Caption Contest" at their Out of Ur blog, which allows readers not only to help shape the comic but also to enjoy all the possibilities that attend to writing it.

So in the obituary you write for the newspaper industry, list the comic strip among the survivors--along with news reporting, weather forecasts, sports updates, celebrity happenings and advertising for auto dealerships.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Requiem for the News--Part Two

If Desmond Tutu pointed out the subversive strength of newspapers (see yesterday's post), singer Joe Jackson much earlier pointed out the insidious weakness of the same. I've not been to Great Britain and so have no direct experience with their news periodicals, but his new-wave/punk era satire "Sunday Papers" doesn't speak highly for the medium. The newspaper industry has had its moments over the centuries, but it's also proven itself capable of making us dumber when it wants.

***

Mother doesn’t go out anymore
Just sits at home and rolls her spastic eyes
But every weekend through the door
Come words of wisdom from the world outside

If you want to know about the bishop and the actress
If you want to know how to be a star
If you want to know about the stains on the mattress
You can read it in the Sunday papers

Mother’s wheelchair stays out in the hall
Why should she go out when the tv’s on?
Whatever moves beyond these walls
She’ll know the facts when Sunday comes along

If you want to know about the man gone bonkers
If you want to know how to play guitar
If you want to know about the other suckers
You can read it in the Sunday papers

Sunday papers don’t ask no questions
Sunday papers don’t get no lies
Sunday papers don’t raise objection
Sunday papers don’t got no eyes

Brother’s heading that way now I guess
He just read something made his face turn blue
Well I got nothing against the press
They wouldn’t print it if it wasn’t true

If you want to know about the gay politician
If you want to know how to drive your car
If you want to know about the new sex position
You can read it in the Sunday papers

Read all about it in the Sunday papers

Monday, May 11, 2009

Requiem for the News

I've never been a devoted newspaper reader. This, I suppose, is yet another aspect of my black-sheepness; my parents and, to my knowledge, both my siblings set aside time to read their local papers thoroughly. My brother used to decorate the walls of our bedroom with pages from "The Peach," the sports section of the Des Moines Sunday Register, printed on peach-colored paper. Only in Iowa (and perhaps Georgia) could peach be considered a manly color.

Anyway, despite my ambivalence about newspapers, I have followed with sadness the steady decline of the industry. Two major Chicago newspapers have struggled publicly to maintain viability in recent years, and it seems that every day another newspaper nationwide announces its imminent collapse. Those of us in the book industry worry that we might be next to fall, although again, that hasn't elicited in me enough motivation to do my part to save the papers--by reading them habitually in the manner of my forebears.

Most people blame the Internet for the decline of the newspaper, but it surely traces back further, to the advent of twenty-four-hour cable news and even before that to network news programs; all those talking heads with moving lips and nicely-groomed hair offer a picture of greater vitality than a static artifact such as a newspaper, with its cheap, throwaway paper and its transferable ink, can suggest.

Holdouts for the newspaper lament the ephemeral nature of the news as presented online; it's too easy and tempting to click away from issues that require more attention than the average contemporary reader can muster. I'll be honest: that very problem as much as anything kept me from reading newspapers as a kid. "Continued on page x" is fine and good if space constraints demand that I turn the page, but six or seven stories per page, all instructing me to continue on a different page, left me wondering every time why I should bother with this perpetual information juggling act. It strikes me that in this regard newspapers are quite a lot like Internet news: when every headline demands a commitment that draws you away from the rest, you pick and choose and prioritize until you tire of picking and choosing and prioritizing. Then you give up and play solitaire.

One of the things I do respect about newspapers that is yet to be resolved online is the way they function as a gathering ground. Globally minded people gravitate toward one or more of several newspapers, such as the New York Times or the Washington Post, and such people can be legitimately identified as a kind of community of readers. They resemble one another. Meanwhile, local papers such as the Chicago Sun Times or the Des Moines Register function as a meeting place for locals; they reinforce a regional identity that already exists. The first dynamic has some traction online--Salon and the Huffington Post come to mind--but the second may well be lost to the ages. And I suppose I can understand why that would cause some people some sorrow.

Desmond Tutu makes a parenthetical observation about newspapers in his book No Future Without Forgiveness that reveals some of the tribalizing power of this industry in decline.

Sometimes I would spread out the newspaper I had come to buy for my dad on the pavement and kneel to read it. I cannot recall one single time when anyone walked over those pages. Now that is ssomething when you think that frequently whites in such towns [in Apartheid-era South Africa] often did not want blacks even to walk on the sidewalk.


The culture of newspaper-reading, it seems, in its heyday had enough power to at least temporarily subvert the culture of segregation that once so centrally identified South Africa. Any culture that can pull that off ought to be proud of its history, even as it frets over its future.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Wall

The intern at my office was rooting around in the archives for my other blog, Strangely Dim, and found this post from August 31, 2007. The intern thought it was funny; I had meant it to be poignant. It's timely again, however, in the sense that we've just reentered spring, the season of feline fancy and ferocity. It's my blog, so I'm going to repost it. Hope you like it.

***

I have two cats, and I like them quite a lot. I don’t like them at all, however, when they start freaking out on me, because watching cats freak out is like watching an exorcism gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Unfortunately, my cats freak out on a relatively regular basis, for reasons that are pretty predictable. The biggest contributing factor is the presence of undomesticated, feral cats sniffing around the windows of my house. I don’t know if my cats are threatened by this uninvited interloper or simply jealous that some cats get to roam free while I, their tyrannical host, force them to stay inside near a steady supply of food and fresh water, presumably so that I can maintain the exclusive privilege of scooping up and dispensing their waste products. But I digress. Whenever a feral cat comes within view of my cats, they respond first by darting from window to window, trying to get the best possible vantage point, then by howling, hissing and screeching at levels that build quickly from mild agitation to what resembles demonic possession. And of course, because I’m a mean guy and won’t let them outside, they can’t take out their aggression on the feral cat, so they take it out on each other. Everyone involved is inconsolable for long stretches of time afterward—except for the feral cat, which just ambles away lackadaisically, its work apparently done.

I react generally by shaming my cats, speaking sarcastically to them about how proud I am of them for defending our home. I can’t imagine what would possess a sentient being to react so irrationally to the mere presence of another sentient being.

Until I looked out my window early one morning to see a strange-looking guy walking around on my driveway. Now, in his defense, he didn’t look really strange; if I saw him at the mall or in the dentist’s office I probably wouldn’t give him a second thought. But in my driveway he looked decidedly unusual and positively menacing. I started darting from room to room, trying to get a sense of where this guy had come from, where he was going and what he was doing on my private property. I was moving quickly from mild agitation to sputtering near-madness.

I should add that (a) I share a driveway with my neighbor and (b) I have a new neighbor, whom I’ve met only once in passing. Although I can’t be sure, this stranger in my driveway was probably my new neighbor in his driveway. I came thisclose to welcoming him to the neighborhood by charging out after him in my bathrobe, ready to defend my turf to the death.

Now the question: Is this kind of behavior more excusable in cats or people?

I’m embarrassed by my vulnerability to the psychology of turf. We’re conditioned in the culture we inhabit to protect our domain, to jealously guard the boundaries that we have established for ourselves and, more significantly, for those around us. “Good fences make good neighbors” is poetry quoted as often as “There once was a man from Nantucket,” I’d wager, and it’s usually quoted approvingly--even though the poem’s tone is more aptly communicated in the more melancholy opening line “Something there is that doesn't love a wall.” Good fences may make good neighbors, but in so doing they subvert what was good about us in the first place.

God hadn’t said much in sacred Scripture by the time he said “It’s not good for the man to be alone,” and I think we do that comment an injustice by interpreting it (as we so often do) solely as the case for sexual intimacy. The psychology of turf was nowhere to be found in Eden--the only thing off limits was the thing that kills. Meanwhile no one in God’s good creation was condemned to be alone. We’ve done that ourselves.

The mere fact that I share a driveway, my former neighbor in the real estate business tells me, is countercultural, a boundary transgression that most homebuyers wouldn’t dream of committing. But having transgressed that cultural boundary, how now shall I live?

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Saying No to Boundaries

I wrote this in 2004--four years before Deliver Us from Me-Ville came out. Five years later I'm more assertive but not much more mature about it. Sigh.

***

I am sorely lacking in the art of self-assertion. Oh, I assert myself a lot, really, but I'm usually by myself when I do it. When I get in the company of others, I choke up. Call me weak-willed if you want, but I prefer to tell myself that I've actualized a theology of meekness.

It's a noble word, meekness--one of those things that Jesus draws attention to as particularly blessed. And there's a big payoff to it: the meek inherit the earth.

But occasionally, along the way to collecting our inheritance, we meek find ourselves saying yes to things we'd rather say no to, capitulating to decisions that offend our sensibilities, faking assent to our more assertive neighbors.

I resent my meekness at times, but I wear it proudly nonetheless, consoling myself with a sense of superiority to those less meek among us. For now, I live in an assertive culture that prizes go-getters, people who by sheer force of will yield agreement from people who might otherwise disagree. The field that the assertive play on is often called "boundaries": thinking too much of the needs of others and too little of our own needs is a sign of weakness or even moral failure--a rejection of God-given parameters for our relationships. We're called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and if we're not loving ourselves, how will we know how to love our neighbors? Greed is good, self matters--to quote George Harrison, "All through the day, I-me-mine."

Is my bias showing? Once it's all typed out, it's not as noble-looking as I originally thought. It's not so simple, after all, as saying that the meek are the heroes and the assertive are the villains. Clark Kent is meek, but Superman is assertive--and they're the same person. Assertive Superman fulfills all the secret desires of mild-mannered Clark Kent. Clark gets to be the noble underdog; Superman gets to punch people through walls. I identify with Clark Kent, but I dream of being Superman.

Like Superman/Clark Kent, Jesus was one person. And he was as assertive as he was meek--at times silent in the face of persecution that makes my own suffering seem profoundly trite, and at other times taunting the authorities, confronting the hypocrites and challenging his followers. He was assertive at his own peril, and meek when it cost him the most.

That's part of being fully human, I suppose. Jesus in his person reveals that meekness and assertiveness are aspects of the human condition, and how we practice our meekness and assertiveness is more important than claiming them as proof of our inheritance, for example, or lording ourselves over our loved ones. Jesus, in his meekness and his assertiveness, judged the world and found it lacking. And in his meekness and his assertiveness, Jesus saved the world and presented it to his Father--whole and without blemish.