Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Glitter Has Ceased to Matter

As I reached the final pages of Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which follow in the wake of President Kennedy's death and the death of Pope John, I learned that Merton weighed the same as I do today--"which," in his view, "is certainly too much."

I have taken of late to identifying myself much with Merton--his cynicism in tension with his faith, his desire to retreat from the world while still loving and feeling drawn toward the world, his impulse to "reform" everything set against his respect for history and concern for seemingly everyone else's disrespect for the same. There are days when I think that Merton could have been my older brother. (Merton's younger brother, it should be noted, died when Merton was thirty-eight--twenty years prior to Conjectures.)

Merton has little to offer in the way of diet tips. Maybe the last five years of his life focus on weight loss; I don't know. But he has much to say about the Christian's posture toward the world. That shouldn't be surprising, given the circumstances in which he found himself:

* The early Nuclear Age, in which most people felt real anxiety over the real possibility of global atomic devastation.
* The theological hangover from World War II, in which people struggled to reconcile the love of God with the human capacity for holocaust.
* The technological boom, in which most people were reconfiguring their whole life-patterns to make room for radio, television and convection ovens.
* The Civil Rights Movement, in which human rights and equal protection under the law for people of color were actually considered by many to be points of debate and worth shedding blood against.
* The death of God/Christless Christianity movement, in which many people tried to reimagine faith inductively, beginning from the point of disillusioned agnosticism or outright atheism, rather than from the biblical revelation and the Great Tradition of the church.
* The assembling of the Second Vatican Council, in which all the great minds of the Catholic Church considered what tone best articulated Christianity's prophetic voice in this particularly beleaguered world.

Merton was well suited to this puzzle, I think. He had a respect for tradition but not a blind, slavish obedience to it; he had an openness to the best logic and habits from outside Christianity without being naively enamored by them; he had a mystical bent that anchored his intellect, and a way of communicating that was simultaneously simple and sophisticated. I've elsewhere referred to him as a punk prophet, and I'll stand by that--happily acknowledging that to be a punk is to make it hard to be a prophet (although to be a prophet can sometimes make it easy to be a punk.)

I should have anticipated this, I suppose, but Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander has a lot to say about one's posture before the world. The title says a lot, of course, but he goes much farther, and as I read the last entry (with its flirtatious forays into Zen), I found myself not only stroking my imaginary beard but feeling my heart strangely warmed by his understanding of God's atoning love for the world and its implications for those of us who occupy that world. Here, in content pulled intermittently from the last twenty pages of the book, is Merton on the world as we have it:

We do not make momentous decisions. They are made for us, and we either accept or not, with good grace or not. The myth of the man of decision, enlightened, determined, calculating the pros and cons, jutting out his jaw and ready to go--this is our consolation for being passive, petulant, confused, ineffectual, dominated by routines. . . .

Only faith is to be taken seriously [here he is reflecting on an idea from Karl Barth] because only the mercy of God is serious. . . . We are judged as men who have taken seriously something other than His infinite mercy. . . .

The real trouble with "the world," in the bad sense which the Gospel condemns, is that it is a complete and systematic sham, and he who follows it ends not by living but by pretending he is alive, and justifying his pretense by an appeal to the general conspiracy of all the others to do the same. . . .

The Father's will did not arbitrarily impose suffering and death on Christ, but sent Him into the world to use His freedom to save man. It is out of love for the Father that Jesus chooses this particular way, the way of humiliation and of the total renunciation of power, in order to save man by love, mercy, and self-sacrifice. . . .

Will the words of the children be lies also, like those of our generation--or worse lies still? When one takes this deeper view he does not have to ask. There is the hope, there is the world that remakes itself at God's command without consulting us. . . . The glitter is false? Well, the light is true. The glitter has ceased to matter. It is even beautiful.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Brian Williams on the Culture of the First Person

Brian Williams, NBC News anchor, was on Letterman's Late Show last night. They talked about a lot of things, principally the question of whether Letterman or his chief rival, Jay Leno, has more gravitas. That took a while, and it was quite funny; Letterman does a good Leno impression, and Williams has a decidedly non-newsy wit about him. But my fondness for David Letterman is not why I'm posting this.

News anchors are regularly asked--even expected--to decipher the zeitgeist, to assign a diagnosis to the current state of the culture. Their job is essentially to narrate the times we live in, and that requires a pressing problem. For Williams last night, that pressing problem is narcissism on a grand scale.

[I] still come back to this that says you're the star. It's about you. Listen to the commercials on all those channels and the message is all in the first person in ways we never ever used or would dream of in the time of say Mad Men, for a modern television reference. So I think it's that.

Admittedly, news anchors are notoriously nostalgic for more noble eras. The times they narrate are held up against older, seemingly better eras and found wanting. For Williams's predecessor, Tom Brokaw, that better era was during World War II, and he spoke in glowing terms to whoever would listen about "the Greatest Generation" who fought that war and recovered that economy. For Williams, it appears that era is the Camelot Age, when Kennedy was president and advertisers smoked and drank in their office. (They don't do that anymore, right?)

Of course, no era is without flaw, and usually, in the light of history, those flaws are pretty obvious. The Greatest Generation locked Japanese Americans (and others of Asian heritage) in internment camps; the Kennedy years were marked with racial violence. And those are just off the top of my head. No disrespect to either gilded age, but they both have their share of tarnish to contend with.

Nevertheless, the narcissism epidemic facing the current culture is well documented, far beyond my own Deliver Us from Me-Ville. I'm not sure it's the bogeyman Williams makes it out to be, but Me-Ville has a strong gravitational pull, one that in and of ourselves we don't have the strength to surmount. Fortunately, we're not left to languish in our self-absorption. In Christ God enters the culture of the first person and draws people to himself. Maybe Brian Williams and the rest of us, the next time we're tempted to look back, should spend a little more time looking up.

Uber-pious, I know. But I couldn't resist.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Thinking the Right Thoughts, Wearing the Right Hats

I've been reading Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, a collection of brief journal entries from the early 1960s, coinciding with, among other things, Vatican II, the Cuban missle crisis, the early Civil Rights Movement and the "death of God" movement. One of the many reasons I love reading Merton is his punk profundity--he loves people, even those many people who annoy him, and he is wildly inventive in the ways he calls out their inconsistencies. He's passionate about his times while maintaining the "contempt for the world" appropriate to his office as a monk. From Merton I learn to think of contempt not as an emotion but an interior action--opposing ("con") temptation--and I likewise see the difference between condemnation (an all too easy word used to denounce the other) and contemnation (the costly act of discipleship).

In Conjectures Merton is rightly observing that (a) the mid-twentieth century is a time of significant turmoil and historic change; and (b) the mid-twentieth century is not, and must not be, what defines us. I'm left to wonder what Merton would think of the cultural, religious and geopolitical changes that came after his death in 1968, but I suspect that he would continue to be consistently contemplative, persistently prophetic, annoyingly astute, insert superlative alliteration here.

Today's reading is focused on "worldliness," something we tend to think of only in the form it takes in us and among us: the "worldly," in the eyes of the church today, view Internet pornography and subscribe to Showtime and play softball on Sunday mornings. They smoke and drink and chew, and go with girls who do. But the idea of "worldliness" is meaningless without considering the reality of who we are and the reality of how that links us both to the world and to God. If we take "worldly" to be bad, we need to immediately ask what it then means to be persons in the world, made of the dust of the earth. If, on the other hand, we take "worldly" to be good--to be sophisticated and well-traveled and liberated from archaisms such as "church"--we are quickly confronted with the question of what the world delivers us from, and what the world delivers us to.

Both sides of this equation, however motivated by pious faith, are kind of missing the point. Merton is happy to make sense of "worldliness," not in a way that simplifies it as a concept, but in a way that keeps us vigilant:

The "wordly" attitude which I think is nefarious is not simply the "turning to the world" or even the total and would-be uncompromising secularism of the "honest to God" set. Still less is it the noble concern for social justice and for the right use of technology. . . . What I mean by "worldliness" is the . . . cultivation of the ability to redefine one's identity day by day in concert with the self-definition of society. "Worldliness" in my mind is typified by this kind of servitude to care and to illusion, this agitation about thinking the right thoughts and wearing the right hats, this crude and shameful concern not with truth but only with vogue. To my mind, the concern of Christians to be in fashion lest they "lose the world" is only another pitiable admission that they have lost it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Blago Trial, Recap

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was recently found guilty in federal court--of one charge, one out of twenty-four. I hate to brag, but I called it.

OK, I called it wrong, but at least I took a stand--something Camera-Hoggo Blago himself declined to do. Fourteen days ago I considered

the curious case of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, whose political career has been ruined not so much by his impeachment as by his ineptitude and irrepressible camera-whoring, but whose trial for conspiracy to sell a Senate seat seems destined to end with his acquittal. The jury is still out, but all signs I can see point to a not guilty verdict; the government, the defense argued effectively, has proved nothing.


The one charge Blago was found guilty of was making false statements to federal investigators. That carries a prison sentence of up to five years. On the other twenty-three charges, the jury was hung. The feds may retry him, but then again, they may not; public sentiment is against a $25 million retrial when Illinois can't pay its teachers to teach. For all intents and purposes, the former governor is getting off easy.

In my previous post I considered the Bush doctrine an accomplice to the criminal negligence (if I may be melodramatic for a moment) of the federal prosecutors. The Bush Doctrine was drafted early in President Bush's first term as a mandate to act pre-emptively against anticipated threats to the United States, a policy that made the Iraq War possible. President Obama has effectively killed the Bush Doctrine, but as presidential directives often do, this one has taken root. Blago was stopped before he committed the crime he was accused of; consequently, the jury couldn't bring themselves to find him guilty.

The governor has become a laughing-stock, so it's hard to take his case seriously. But there are other, more serious cases that seem to suffer from a similarly itchy trigger finger. Most notably in my mind is the case of Warren Jeffs, who presided over the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and allegedly (and almost certainly) helped adult men marry little girls. He was convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape of a minor, but his conviction was overturned on a technicality: since the man who married the little girl hasn't been convicted of rape yet, Jeffs can't be convicted as an accomplice. It only goes to show (if I may resort to violent imagery for a moment) it doesn't matter in a gunfight how quick you draw your gun if you can't hit your target.

Fortunately, Jeffs is facing extradition to Texas to be tried on charges of his own sexual violence against children. Texas, it's safe to assume, still loves the Bush Doctrine, and they love to put people on trial.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Prayer for the Vigilant

An excerpt from Thomas Merton's prayer during the Pentecost vigil, from his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, for the day and week and life to come:

Therefore, Father, I beg you to keep me in this silence so that I may learn from it the word of your peace and the word of your mercy and the word of your gentleness to the world: and that through me perhaps your word of peace may make itself heard where it has not been possible for anyone to hear it for a long time.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Ministry of Anonymity

This morning I was reading a column in Entertainment Weekly from a few weeks ago (we're in sort of a magazine co-op with my mother-in-law, so we get them a bit late); the author of the column was calling out the Hollywood film industry for leaving so many female characters unnamed, and giving them no lines, and using them only as props. Examples included "topless cheerleader" and "blonde junkie," if I recall correctly. I suppose you might think it part of my master literary plan that I haven't named the columnist by now, but I must confess that in fact the magazine is on the other side of my house and I'm too lazy to go get it. But that's not the point of this post.

The point of this post is that I went from reading that column (it's in the bathroom, OK?!?!) to settling into my recliner and reading Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, specifically the part in which he discusses--and I am not making this up--the unimportance of the names of his neighboring nuns.

Nuns are generally women, in case you didn't know. That's where I was in my reading. Two sides of my house taking two completely different positions on the importance of giving women names. When stuff like that happens to me, I sit up and take notice. Then I blog about it.

You might jump to the conclusion that the column is a couple of weeks old, while Merton's meditations are a half-century old and reflect the prejudices of the day. How important, for example, do the men on Mad Men--peers of Merton, if we apply the timeline--consider the women in their lives: their spouses, secretaries, mistresses? How often do they even remember those women's names? I confess I don't know, since I don't generally watch Mad Men, which is helping this post to be perhaps my least researched ever. But that's not why I bring it up.

I bring it up because between the columnist and Merton, I think Merton remains the more enlightened. The columnist's case, for all its righteous anger (and I do think women should be given names and voices alongside men, for the record), is pretty weak. Meanwhile, Merton's more speculative thinking transcends the question of gender to consider the meaning of each moment, the value of relationship and service, even the ministry of anonymity. Here's how he enters into his reflections:

At the Little Sisters of the Poor in Louisville: the beauty of the Church is evident in the charity of her children, and especially her daughters.

The "Good Mother" is transparent, simple, of no age, both child and mother, and hence something like Mary. Perhaps the complicated names of nuns (which I can never remember) are in the end no names at all, s if nuns could not have names anyway. As if only God could know their names.


Merton is generally happy to give his strong negative opinion of the thoughtless apostasy and quiet desperation of his age, so when he gets this awestruck, I sit up and take notice. He doesn't impress easily, and yet here he is undoubtedly impressed.

Yet how real they are as persons! How much more real (often enough) than people who have "big names" in the world. One does not need to idealize the Sisters. They have their problems. Often they have to struggle with a difficult "system." Yet their faith and their love give them greatness.


Merton--decades prior to the advent of social media, where people establish their "big names" by amassing thousands of friends and followers--is himself a case study in the relative importance of a name. A bestselling author, he was nonetheless one of a small number of Trappist monks in a small town in Kentucky. For a while his was a household name; for many it still is. And yet his story is a flirtation (with its inevitable frustrations) with the ministry of anonymity--a life of quiet reflection that nonetheless challenges our cultural presumptions and shapes our ethics.

A couple of years ago I read Jose Saramago's book Blindness. (I saw the film also, and wrote about it here, in case you're interested.) In that story no one is named: not the women, not the men, not the children. Saramago makes a big deal out of it, actually--although I can't quote his rationale because the book is all the way over on the other side of the house--as a way of helping the reader (and the characters) look beyond the particular context of each person to see the bigger picture of the human condition: what assails us, what entices us, what empowers us. One of Saramago's many insights revealed in this book about blindness was made clear already in Merton's experience with the nameless nuns, and would be a helpful reminder to my nameless EW columnist: Our names are a gift, a luxury, even; but our conduct is what ultimately defines us. Whatever you call me--"Dave" or "lazy blogger #1" or anything else that comes to mind--I am called beyond myself into ministry to God's creation; my name may be my birthright, but in the words of Jose Saramago, "Today is my responsibility."

Monday, August 09, 2010

Between Churches: Merton on Basic Pseudo-Christianity

I have the privilege of working for a "long tail" publisher, whose business model involves looking past the BIG BOOK OF THE MOMENT to work on books that will endure over time. Some books may sell modestly in their first year but continue to sell steadily every year after that, and before you know it, the editor who acquired it has retired while the book keeps selling.

I occasionally, then, reread books that were written thirty, forty, fifty or sixty years ago, when they're up for a new cover or a new edition or approaching a milestone anniversary. Most recently this was the case with Basic Christianity, fifty years old in 2009. John Stott wrote this book while he was rector of a church in post-WWII London; he went on to become one of the most influential people in the world. If you've not heard of him, that's not our fault.

Anyway, Basic Christianity is what it claims to be--a simple, straightforward presentation of what is, in the mind of Stott and the evangelicals of his era, basic to Christianity. As his later career proved, Stott has remarkable clarity, enabling him to transcend the cultural quirks of his era to declare something timeless that nonetheless speaks prophetically to his times. No wonder it continues to sell like hotcakes.

But I'm not writing today about Stott. I'm writing about Thomas Merton, Stott's Roman Catholic contemporary whose books leave Stott's in the dust in terms of sales and whose name you are even more responsible for not knowing. Merton entered monastic life in roughly the same time period that Stott entered pastoral ministry and went on to publish numerous books of theology and social commentary before his death in 1968. One late entry in his corpus, which I'm currently reading, is titled Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. (Let me here acknowledge that his publisher has more fun titling books than mine does.)

In this book, mostly sketchy thoughts and commentary on the "interesting times" we inhabit and our inherent responsibility to such times (and our all-too-common failure to live up to that responsibility), Merton devotes a couple of pages to "the basic Christian faith." I find myself wondering whether he's responding to Stott here; perhaps he glanced at Stott's little book on a shelf in the library at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and thought, Hmmm, maybe I should do something like that. Such a plainspoken, presentational book is not his cup of tea, however, so he journaled about it and moved on. Here, digested from its already digested state, is Merton's perspective on basic Christianity--and, perhaps more interestingly, its corrupted form as experienced today:

The basic Christian faith is that he who renounces his delusive, individual autonomy in order to receive his true being and freedom in and by Christ is "justified" by the mercy of God in the Cross of Christ. His "sins are forgiven" in so far as the root of guilt is torn up in the surrender which faith makes to Christ. . . .

The Church is the place in which this surrender of individual autonomy becomes real, guaranteed by the truth of the Spirit and by His love, and by the pardon of sins: for the Church herself takes upon herself all man's sin. The Church at once confesses the sins of all men as her own, and receives in herself the mercy that is offered to all men.

But now, supposing that, instead of confessing the sins of the world which she has taken upon herself, the Church--or a group of Christians who arrogate to themselves the name of "Church"--becomes a social mechanism for self-justification? . . . Suppose that she becomes a perfect and faultless machine for declaring herself not guilty? . . . SUpposing that, instead of conscience, she provides men with the support of unanimous group approval or disapproval? . . . The "Church" becomes simply a place where men gather to decree that others are guilty and they themselves are innocent. . . .

It is characteristic of pseudo-Christianity that, while claiming to be justified by God, by faith, or by the works of faith and love, it merely operates a machine for excusing sin instead of confessing and pardoning it--a machine for producing the feeling that one is right and everyone else is wrong. . . . Thus gradually the determination to pervert the Christian conscience becomes a function of the "Church"--perhaps even its prime function. And this becomes, inevitably, the sign of God's judgment upon that "Church."


So here's my confession: I don't want to go to that kind of "Church"--except that I kinda do. And assuming that the church is portable--that it's a "we" embedded in every Christian's "I"--to the extent that I nurse and nurture this "Church" in me I threaten the vitality of every church I visit. God help us all.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Blago Trial and the Bush Doctrine

Some people, for what it’s worth, know even less about the Bush Doctrine than I do. But what I do know about it makes me wonder if its genie is permanently out of the cultural bottle. The Bush Doctrine suggests that it’s appropriate to act preemptively to prevent violence against the national interest. Or something like that. Shoot first, ask questions later. Fire till you see the whites of their eyes. The Obama Doctrine may have reversed this policy in the execution of our foreign relations, but closer to home, the logic of the Bush doctrine seems to be flourishing.

Its outcomes, unfortunately, are not. Last week I read two articles about two separate criminal prosecutions, both of which seem to have been undermined because the authorities acted preemptively. The first is the curious case of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, whose political career has been ruined not so much by his impeachment as by his ineptitude and irrepressible camera-whoring, but whose trial for conspiracy to sell a Senate seat seems destined to end with his acquittal. The jury is still out, but all signs I can see point to a not guilty verdict; the government, the defense argued effectively, has proved nothing.

Blago's case, boiling down to an abuse of power, is irritating but also largely amusing, thanks to the defendant himself. The second case I read about last week is far more serious: Warren Jeffs, who presided over a polygamous wedding between an adult man and an underage girl, was sent to prison during the Bush era but has been relieved of the conviction in the Obama era—not, I hasten to add, because President Obama approves of polygamy and statutory rape (someone will leap to that conclusion, I’m sure) but because the government failed to honor due process and establish the crime of rape (by convicting the man who married the girl) before convicting Jeffs as an accomplice. Thankfully Jeffs can be retried; arguably, since the rapist remains unprosecuted, he will still get off. Maybe the Texans will get him; he’s under investigation there for his own child abuse allegations, and Texas is not so quick to leave the Bush era behind.

The problem with the Bush Doctrine is, as I see it, essentially its immateriality: it sanctions action, often extreme action, before wrongdoing has actually been done. It’s like Minority Report, only instead of having psychics we have hunches, inference, hearsay and arcane legal logistics. Rod Blagojevich was arrested because it was painfully evident he was thisclose to selling then-President-Elect Obama's Senate seat, not because he had actually sold it. Warren Jeffs, meanwhile, is almost certainly overseeing a network that systematically exploits young girls. While I can appreciate the impulse to rush to judgment in either case, in both cases we’re learning the cost of rushing, and in both cases the clearly guilty, it appears, are going free.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Cloud City

Darren Prince, one of the authors of the forthcoming Living Mission (IVP/Likewise), turned me on to a website that generates "word clouds"--a graphic representation of the dominant words in a document. This is the word cloud generated for my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville, in case you were wondering whether you'd like the book.