Friday, July 30, 2010

Mad Lib of a Vampire: Anne Rice’s Status Updates, Helpfully Taken Out of Context

Novelist Anne Rice posted some buzzworthy status updates earlier this week. She went right past the "Religious Views" field (which likely now reads "It's complicated") and tweeted a press release. Opinions undoubtedly range widely on her choice of words and even whether, in a cosmic sense, they can actually mean what she intends them to mean. But anthropologically speaking, I think there's a lot going on here worth chewing on. And I can't think of a better way to chew on them--to deconstruct her comments as an artifact of the zeitgeist--than by reproducing them as a MadLib.

My friend Rebecca occasionally reminds me of MadLibs; it's all the rage on the other side of the building where I work, and she'll be posting a fun one to our common blog Strangely Dim sometime next week. So all props to Rebecca for getting this in my head again just at the right time. You know how it works: each blank below is filled in by a word you choose in advance.

Paragraph A
1. noun
2. proper noun
3. adjective
4. noun
5. verb
6. noun
7. noun (opposite of #4)

Paragraph B
1. proper noun
2. adjective
3. adjective
4. noun
5. adjective
6. noun
7. noun
8. noun
9. proper noun (same as #1)
10. noun
11. adjective

For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a ______. I’m out. I remain committed to ________ as always but not to being “________” or to being part of __________. It’s simply impossible for me to “_________” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous _____. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an _______. My conscience will allow nothing else.

I’m out. In the name of __________ I refuse to be anti-____. I refuse to be anti-____. I refuse to be anti-____. I refuse to be anti-____. I refuse to be anti-____. I refuse to be anti-____. I refuse to be anti-____. In the name of _____ I quit ________ and being ________. Amen.

Have fun with it, but do take at least one serious pass through it. Rice was tweeting about her faith in Christ and corresponding connection to Christianity; what other "faith commitments" (whether spiritual or secular, conscious or unacknowledged) can be so subdivided? Is it even possible to talk meaningfully about Christ without dealing with Christianity? To what can we compare the people of God?

By the way, my own first paragraph (above) is admittedly a convoluted mess. Someone could make a MadLib out of that, I'm sure.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Merton on Barth on Mozart

I forget, sometimes, when I settle down to delve into a book by mid-twentieth-century monk Thomas Merton, that he was a man of his times. I unconsciously prepare myself for deep mysticism, the kind of extrarational, nonlinear writing that shocks you into the Spirit like Leo Dicaprio gets shocked awake in Inception. I forget that as mystical as Merton often gets, he's also a man of his times, and certain things tick him off.

For example, as a practicing Protestant with sentimental attachments to the Catholicism of my youth, I take great delight in Merton's occasional salvos against the folly of the Protestantism of his day. Particularly in his Seven Storey Mountain, a memoir of his gradual embrace of Catholicism and later his entry into monastic life, he indulges the occasional rant. I picture not a red face but rather a wry smile as he writes, enjoying the mockery he makes of these earnest evangelicals with no respect for history.

Merton wasn't a bigot, it turns out; he didn't hate Protestants, but thin theology bugged him as much as poor aesthetics and bad writing. Hand him a piece by someone who knew what he was doing, and Merton would show that Protestant some respect.

I've just begun reading Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton's spiritual journals from the late 1950s. I was prepared to read about war, racism, Zen, transcendence, even whooping cranes. I wasn't quite prepared for the opening line: "Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart."

Karl Barth, one of the most important theologians ever--a contemporary of Merton, and as Protestant as they come. Mozart, the child prodigy of the Classical era who dismissed Protestantism as "all in the head."

I've been eager to read Conjectures since I first heard of it; it strikes me as Merton at his sardonic, bemused best. But clearly I didn't know what to expect; leading off with Karl Barth's dreamlife shocked me awake more than the trippiest haiku ever could.

Barth, in his dream, was appointed to examine Mozart in theology. He wanted to make the examination as favorable as possible, and in his questions he alluded pointedly to Mozart's masses.

But Mozart did not answer a word. . . .

The dream concerns his salvation, and Barth perhaps is striving to admit that he will be saved more by the Mozart in himself than by his theology. . . .

Bart says . . . that "it is a child, even a 'divine' child, who speaks in Mozart's music to us." Some, he says, considered Mozart always a child in practical affairs. . . . At the same time, Mozart, the child prodigy, "was never allowed to be a child in the literal meaning of that word." He gave his first concert at the age of six.

Yet he was always a child "in the higher meaning of that word."

Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation.

That's from page four. Page one has the title and two quotations; page two is blank. Three hundred and fifty pages to go, but I will remember throughout that Merton's books (and mine) matter less than we might think. And I will do my best throughout to trust in the divine mercy.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Paulo Freire Is a Genius--Can I Get a Witness?

On the recommendation of a friend of mine, I recently read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book on education that empowers people to overcome systemic oppression. Not that I have that problem myself; I am willfully complicit in the chains I bear--and by "chains" I'm thinking primarily of Caribou Coffee, Taco Johns, that sort of thing. But arguably even the complicit are victims in a system of oppression, just as often the victims are complicit. But I digress. Anyhoo, I read this book, far removed as it is from my day-to-day experience, and now I feel like getting into trouble.

Freire is mostly concerned with colonialism, but more positively what he describes is a method for initiating and sustaining any movement--another subject I've been reading a lot about lately. One might argue (several have, in fact) that Christianity began less as an institution and more as a movement; one might further argue that it would be revitalized by rediscovering this movement orientation. In any case, as a movement Christianity necessarily shares language with other movements; in at least one case, other movements share language with Christianity--the language of "witness."

I hear the word witness and think of how a person conducts herself, and how others interpret that conduct as essential Christianity. That's not how Freire intends it; he's talking about the witness of Che Guevara and his ilk. But the picture he paints of witness as an idea-informing-action--witness as praxis--is a lot more dynamic, more inspiring, by his portrayal:

The essential elements of witness which do not vary historically include: consistency between words and actions; boldness which urges the witnesses to confront existence as a permanent risk; radicalization . . . leading both the witnesses and the ones receiving that witness to increasing action; courage to love (which, far from being accommodation to an unjust world, is rather the transformation of that world in behalf of the increasing liberation of humankind); and faith in the people, since it is to them that witness is made.

All authentic (that is, critical) witness involves the daring to run risks, including the possibility that the leaders [those giving witness] will not always win the immediate adherence of the people.

A good reminder that witness--that of the Christian or that of the anarchist--is a gift offered for the benefit of the other, not a commodity to be hoarded as precious. We may die for our witness; we might trust that our death would then bear fruit.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Between Churches: Excursus on Mission

I've been writing intermittently about my ongoing experiment in finding and re-settling at a new church. (Read my earlier posts--in reverse order, I'm afraid--here.) Today I want to interrupt myself with a question that came to mind the other night: Should I be looking for a church, or do I need to find a mission?

The question came up while I sat in on a gathering in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago--close enough to home that I could crash the party, but far enough away that I didn't need to worry about getting committed. It was intended as an initial discussion about how people in this particular community could be more missional--more actively and thoughtfully engaged in showcasing the Christian faith where they lived. But it quickly became a recruiting opportunity for Forge America.

Forge is an international missionary-training organization formed in Australia by Alan Hirsch. I became a bit of a Hirsch groupie earlier this year--a little late to the party, I freely admit, since his books have been circulating for nigh on a decade now--and as it happens, Forge America is being established in the Chicago area. I met the people who are launching it here, and they're very cool--just months into this new initiative, they're bubbling with enthusiasm and creative energy. I like to be around people like that; it makes me feel more enthusiastic and creative myself.

One of the main elements of the Forge methodology is a year-long residency, in which people develop the theological grounding for their perceived mission and get skill-training in doing the work of a missionary--cultural anthropology, sociology, theology, what have you. I should hasten to add that this isn't primarily a means to the ends of the earth; Forge emphasizes the notion that being on mission is what it means to be the church, so wherever you find yourself is, to borrow a phrase from Jesus, ripe for the harvest. Some people who are trained by Forge go on to travel internationally, but the vast majority start or continue work where (or near where) they live. A year of anything costs money, of course, so my eye went quickly to the bottom line: $2500.


Just above the bottom line, however, was another requirement: participants in the residency program have to be (and continue to be) actively engaged in an ongoing mission. That is, of course, open to interpretation, but I found myself deferring the money question and fretting instead over the mission question. What, I wondered, would I write on that line of the application form? What is it that I'm actively giving myself to? In the midst of window-shopping all these churches in and around my community, what am I producing, creating, engaging? What in the world am I doing?

Big gulp.

In the grand scheme of things, $2500 is not a ton of money; a college or graduate student would easily spend that in a semester (maybe a quarter, maybe a week) and not blink. But a mission you can point to and say with confidence "This is what God has me doing right now" . . . For a melancholic cynic like me, saying anything so emphatically is hard; for a suburban sloth like me, locking in to such audacious activism is even harder.

I know for a fact that I'm not alone in carrying a certain amount of ennui about how to relate to church. I've heard from enough people over the past several posts, over the past several months--over the course of my adulthood, really--to know that contemporary people struggle to identify with churches as institutions. But maybe we're asking the wrong questions; maybe we're setting off on the wrong quest. Maybe instead of searching for a church to consume, we should be discerning the mission God has for us, and letting whatever then passes for church coalesce around it.

OK, enough of that. I'll get back to deconstructing churches as institutions soon, I promise.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Surprised by Solitude, Part Two

Second of two posts on solitude, based on the experience of the prophet Jonah. Read the first post here.


In solitude the trappings we accumulate--for our protection, for our self-assertion, for our self-indulgence--all are put to the test. We find out which of our everyday accoutrements has slid from mere comfortable accessory to potential idol. We find out in solitude which relationships have dredged up in us an unhealthy dependency or given us license to behave in ways that are unseemly or destructive. In the belly of a fish Jonah comes to terms with his failure to respond to the call God has placed on him. In solitude we are judged by God and brought to a place of understanding that judgment.

But solitude—this sacramental aloneness that we find in Jonah—takes us beyond the judgment of God to the grace of God. “The LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah,” we recall, not as a death sentence but as a deliverance. Jonah’s prayer in chapter two acknowledges the death that awaited him when he went overboard and the grace that sustained him as he came to terms with his failure to live out his calling. God shows Jonah, and us with him, that even in our failures God is still near, and even in our desperation God still offers deliverance.

Solitude strips us of what we’ve come to depend on, in order that we can be reminded that we depend ultimately on God alone. But it’s not some accident that we stumble into. We may find ourselves alone with God, like Moses by the burning bush or Jacob by the ladder to heaven, but solitude is qualitatively different: it’s a sacramental kind of discipline that we enter into by our own volition. As such, solitude takes us beyond circumstance and assertion into the category of sacred practice, part of our everyday call to live out our faith.

And yet, solitude isn’t something that we go hunting for, as if God is a genie in a bottle that we need only to rub. Solitude is itself an act of grace, an invitation extended to us. In that respect, solitude is not so much an act of obedience as it is an act of faith--like the act of communion, in which we receive the elements and are reminded of our failings but also of our deliverance, reminded of our shortcomings but also of our salvation. We’re reminded that we haven’t solved our own problems, but that we’ve had the great fortune of entering into relationship with a loving God.

So solitude is different—dramatically different—from the loneliness we find ourselves in or the me-time we demand for ourselves. In some circumstances we find ourselves alone; in other circumstances we declare ourselves alone. But in solitude we are reminded by the God of the universe and the lover of our souls that we are never alone, and we remember that this fact in and of itself changes everything.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Surprised by Solitude, Part One

First of two posts on solitude, drawn from the experience of the prophet Jonah.


I think it’s worth considering, as I read the book of Jonah, that the prophet didn’t know that God would send a fish to swallow him up. Nothing in the text indicates that he did: He didn’t say “If you could just drop me by that big ole fish over there . . .” No, “Throw me into the water,” he tells his shipmates, and he and they alike fully expected that he was being thrown to his death. Jonah assumed he would die in defiance of God’s call on him to go to Nineveh.

I wonder how Jonah’s tombstone would read. “Here lies Jonah—he kept to himself”? “Here lies Jonah—alone at last”? However it might read, Jonah would be remembered in death as a prophet who refused to prophesy, who would rather be left alone, thank you very much.

There are, I think, at least three ways of being alone. There’s circumstantial aloneness—we find ourselves alone, as when my wife has to work late or all our friends have other plans. I have a friend who lives by himself and doesn’t want to; he goes to sleep alone every night and wakes up alone every morning, and in between he goes about his business. But he wishes he were married; he finds himself alone, but he’s not happy about it. Another friend of mine is unmarried and perfectly content: she goes to sleep alone and wakes up alone, and in between she goes about her business, and she’s happy with her life. Aloneness as a circumstance is a perfectly legitimate way to be, but it’s not the kind of aloneness that we’re considering in the curious case of Jonah.

Another way of being alone is more assertive. We hit our limit in our interactions with other people—coworkers whose demands on our time become tiresome, or children who never stop needing us, or friends, neighbors and church members whose quirkinesses gradually morph into nettlesome annoyances—and declare “me-time.” With me-time we remind ourselves and others that we aren’t just cogs in a machine but distinct persons; we may rediscover ourselves from time to time by getting away from everyone else. In some cases this can be healthy: Folk singer Dar Williams wrote of her therapy sessions—a sort of guided me-time—“Oh, how I loved everybody else when I finally got to talk so much about myself.” In some cases, of course, me-time can devolve into something tragic, when we start to believe the insidious notion that we have no need of anyone else, when we forget to remember that the other people around us aren’t just annoying or needy drains on our energy but themselves distinct persons who deserve our honor and respect.

But in any case, like circumstantial aloneness, assertive aloneness is not the type of aloneness under consideration here. No, I see Jonah as a case study in a third type of aloneness: solitude.

“But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah.” The aloneness Jonah enters into here is orchestrated by God, making it something of a sacramental experience. Henri Nouwen, the late great writer on Christian spirituality, called solitude the “furnace of transformation” because, among other reasons, solitude is uncomfortable. In solitude God puts us to the test.