Sunday, December 25, 2011

History Involved Itself (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear)

For whatever reason, this song makes me think of Christmas. It's probably this line: "Or what it was . . . incarnation." I picture a shepherd on a hill at night, and suddenly angels and archangels heralding the birth of God . . .

When the revenant came down,
we couldn't imagine what it was.
In the spirit of three stars--the alien thing that took its form.
Then to Lebanon, oh God, the flashing at night,
the sirens grow and grow . . .

Oh, history involved itself

Mysterious shade that took its form,
Or what it was:


Three stars delivering signs and dusting from their eyes.

Merry Christmas from Loud Time.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Finding a Path to True: My GoodReads Review of Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me

Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of SortsJesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was predisposed to think Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me by Ian Morgan Cron would be great. It was recommended to me by friends, coworkers, a vicar’s wife I met on retreat, even the editor who asked me to review it for Relevant Magazine's year-end best-of-2011 list. I picked up a humidity-soaked copy at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina in June, where the euphoria surrounding the book was palpable.

I normally resist such mania. Anything that gets that many people so quickly in a lather must be putting something in their drinks first. That may be why I put off reading the book for six months. But it turns out everyone was right. Cron's book is a good memoir that, in the final fifty pages, turns great.

Memoir is a tricky thing to write, trickier than it appears on the surface. You would think that anyone could do it; it seems like simply putting words to paper to tell the story of your life. Cron's memoir covers nearly half a century of life as he's known it, from his Irish Catholic childhood that splits time between Great Britain and New England, during which (no spoiler alert; it's in the book title) his dad works secretly for the CIA. His dad is also an alcoholic with diagnosed Narcissistic Personality Disorder that quickly caught up with his professional life and wreaked havoc on his home life. Plenty of grist for a sensational story, and to write a memoir based on it, given the zeitgeist, seems like a no-brainer.

Ah, but while anyone can write down their story, it takes talent to write a memoir, to tell an intensely personal story that not only compels the reader forward without losing his or her interest (the line between personal and arcane is as fine as it is unforgiving) but universalizes the themes so that the readers can find themselves, and something beyond themselves, in the telling. This is the feat that Cron accomplishes, moving generally effortlessly between the ethereal and the earthy, the sublime and the silly, all in service to the task of finding a path to true--a spiritual and emotional equilibrium that, for the person, approaches a reconciled self.

The book isn't perfect; Cron wears his fondness for (and debt to) writer and radio personality Jean Shepherd on his sleeve. Shepherd is a featured player in one of Cron's moments of epiphany, who was listening to Shepherd's radio program the night he told the story of a childhood friend whose tongue was frozen to a wintry flagpole. That scene was immortalized in Shepherd's short-story-turned-film A Christmas Story. It was Christmastime as I read Cron's book, and I had visited the house featured in the film A Christmas Story earlier in the year, so I may have been especially attuned to the writing style that Cron clearly emulates. But it's not a bad style to emulate, and besides, Cron's a good writer, so it's a generally pleasant homage.

One of the major themes of the book is the Eucharist, which figures prominently in Cron's childhood story and comes full circle when he, as an Episcopal priest, celebrates the mass at the end of the book. The Eucharist is a sacrament, a dispensation of grace, something that every memoir ought to aspire to, in my opinion, and something that Cron manages to achieve here. He mixes humor and sadness like bread and wine, yielding a conversion narrative that rings true in ways that only emerge from the commingling of suffering and faith, of the altar and the therapist's couch, of the body and blood of Christ. We join Cron in his search for a safe home, a caring father, redemption from a deeply scarred past, even though his story is entirely unique; it is in fact through his unique story that his readers are graced with a fundamental truth of the universe: love always stoops, and faith always jumps.

View all my reviews

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tax Breaks for Christmas?

I get two kinds of mail at the end of the year: Christmas cards from friends and end-of-year appeals from nonprofits. The cleverer nonprofits make their end-of-year appeals look like holiday greetings, but we all know better: their fiscal year is coming to a close, and they're looking to end strong.

There are some year-end appeals, however, that I open as eagerly as I do the Christmas cards (and, if I'm being honest, more eagerly than I do some Christmas cards). These are the letters from friends who happen to work for nonprofits. Some of them raise the funds that pay their salaries, which is to say their housing, their health insurance, their kids' education, their retirement. Some of them raise a significant portion of (in some cases the entirety of) the budget for their organizations. Their letters are often not much different in form from the letters that come from more anonymous fundraisers--there are pictures of smiling or frowning kids, pie charts and bar graphs, underlined phrases and digitized signatures--but I know the people behind the letters, and I know that their hearts are in the letters because their hearts are in the work.

The end of the year isn't just Christmas and fiscal-year-end for nonprofits; it's also the end of the tax year. Many of us are staring down some nasty capital gains or unanticipated freelance income to report to the Internal Revenue Service in a matter of weeks; we are sometimes advised in such a situation to give some money away, to jack up our deductibles and offset our tax burden. Or something like that. I'm not typically in such a rosy financial scenario; I am, after all, the 99 percent. Many of you are as well, and you're developing nonprofit fatigue at the same rate as holiday shopping fatigue. I get that, believe me. But you may find yourself with a few extra shekels in your stocking come December 26--the second day of Christmas as well as St. Stephen's Day, for those who pay attention to such things. On that day some years ago, so it is said, good King Wenceslas looked out and saw a poor man gath'ring winter fuel. Wenceslas was sainted for his kindness to those in need, and the song dedicated to him reminds us that "he who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing."

 I write all this as much as anything to serve as a reminder to myself that, like my friends, there are people doing good and often unsung work behind those wearying year-end appeals in between all my Christmas cards--to remind myself that there may yet be some bucks left in the bank after the Christmas shopping is behind us, and those bucks could yet do some good. You may looking for such a reminder yourself. If that's the case, consider yourself reminded.

I've added a sidebar to Loud Time of "Organizations I Like." These are groups led and sustained by people I admire--many of them people I consider dear friends. If you're looking for some nonprofit to bless or to send you that blessed tax receipt this year, I happily commend them all to you. If you're a dear friend or person I admire whose nonprofit organization I've failed to like, feel free to hit me up, and I'll add it. If you have organizations you don't see in the sidebar you'd like to turn me on to, or if you'd like to add your thanks for the organizations you do see there, please comment freely. And in case I forget to say it later, have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Occupy Christmas Music: Songs and Albums Worth Tolerating

I can't think of anything else to write about, so I'll write about this: my wife, because she loves me, bought me the She & Him Christmas album. It was the first thing I saw as I walked through the door after a three-day trip. I haven't listened to it yet, but I'm really looking forward to it. She & Him is a group made up of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward--Zooey of Elf and New Girl fame; M. Ward the accomplished alt-folk singer-songwriter and one of the Monsters of Folk. The songs they record for She & Him are reminiscent of mid-fifties pop-chanteuse music; I saw them in Chicago for free with my in-laws at the Millennium Park amphitheater and quickly gobbled up both their releases, so yeah, I was eager to hear what they did on a Christmas album.

I get bored easily with Christmas music, to be honest. So much of recorded holiday music is opportunistic and pandering. You're more likely to hear harps and violins at the Wal-Mart in December than you are to hear them in heaven, and there's a reason for that. But when I find Christmas music that's different, that someone took on for the challenge of it rather than for the quick buck it churns out, I take notice. So I thought I'd offer a list of songs and albums that I've come to rely on during the holiday season. I welcome your feedback and supplements.

These Are A Few of My Favorite Singles
  • "O Holy Night," by Tracy Chapman. A song that's far too often overblown (see this for an example) is made especially poignant and pensive by a reliable folkie.
  • "We're Following the Wrong Star," by Billy Bragg and Ben Sollee. I can never seem to get enough of Billy Bragg, and the fact that he even has a Christmas song fills me with Christmas cheer.
  • "Gabriel's Message," by Sting. Sting recorded this song for the Very Special Christmas project years ago; the version on his more recent holiday album isn't as good, but it's still good.
  • "St. Stephen's Day Murders," by Elvis Costello with the Chieftains. Leave it to Elvis to sing about murder for a holiday album.
  • "Angels We Have Heard on High," by Crystal Lewis. This contemporary Christian musician turned jazzy for her Christmas album, and this one is the best track among a number of greats. "Slow down, fellas," she jokes during the band's jam. "What's your hurry?"
  • "God's Own Son," by Nicole C. Mullen. I want to write a Christmas play just so I can choreograph this song. Funky tuba--what else needs to be said?
  • "I Saw Three Ships," by Bruce Cockburn. I've actually only ever heard this once, and I've never found it since. But it's awesome.
These Are a Few of My Favorite Albums
  • Shawn Colvin, Holiday Songs and Lullabies. I'd listen to this all year round if it didn't make me self-conscious. Best tracks are "Love Came Down at Christmas" and "Little Road to Bethlehem."
  • Jars of Clay, Christmas Songs. I like Jars a lot; we've seen them in concert several times. They interpret songs in really interesting ways. Best tracks are "Winter Skin," "Wonderful Christmastime" and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."
  • The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Boogie Woogie Christmas. Seriously, who's cooler than Brian Setzer? Best tracks are "Blue Christmas," "Sleigh Ride," "The Nutcracker Suite" and "The Amens."
  • The Blind Boys of Alabama, Go Tell It on the Mountain. The singing group collaborates with an eclectic bunch of singers. Best tracks are "Last Month of the Year," ""Born in Bethlehem" (with Mavis Staples) and "I Pray on Christmas" (with Solomon Burke).
  • Oh Starling! Joy. This is probably hard to find, since it was produced as a fundraiser a couple of years ago for Scum of the Earth Church in Denver. But it's cool. Look for "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."
  • Bing Crosby, The Voice of Christmas. C'mon. It's Bing. "Mele Kalikimaka" is wildly entertaining, and "Adeste Fideles" is old-school brilliant.
  • The Fab Four, A Fab Four Christmas. Christmas songs arranged to sound like Beatles songs. "Away in a Manger" sounds just like "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." This will probably eventually get old, but it hasn't yet.
  • Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas. Every year for five years, Sufjan and friends put out an EP of Christmas-themed music. Then they boxed it. I lost volume 2 somewhere along the way, which is bitterly disappointing, since it includes "Once in Royal David's City." But "We're Goin' to the Country" and "Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming" are great, as is everything else.

That's what I've got. What have you got?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Please Pass the Funk

Happy Thanksgiving! A litte Sly and the Family Stone to put you in the mood.

A psalm. For giving grateful praise.

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


I suppose that I will be forevermore plagued with the sick expectation that sermons preached about pride, narcissism, egocentrism, selfishness, and other related behaviors and outlooks will reference my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville--this despite several instances of frustration to date when preachers have failed to reference it. But the topic still holds my attention, three years after the book's release. So I was pleased to read, of all things, Sarah Silverman's insights into the root causes of self-aggrandizing behavior in the recent "comedy issue" of Entertainment Weekly. Here it is; I hope you like it as much as I relate to it:

Hecklers are a heartbreaking breed, desperate to connect at any cost, positive or negative. Like a kid acting out for attention — even if they get spanked, at least it's contact; even if they get punished, at least they've garnered focus. When I get heckled, I tend to give the heckler what he wants — attention; to be ''mirrored,'' as the shrinks say. Sometimes I do an impression of what they probably won't be saying the next day: ''Oh, man, remember last night when I was like, 'You're f---ing Matt Damon!!'? That was so awesome!'' (Just to be clear, this is by no means encouragement — if the heckler spells trouble or f---s up my timing, they're skillfully escorted out by very subtle yet giant men.)

A guy once just yelled, ''ME!!'' in the middle of my set. It was amazing. This guy's heckle actually directly equaled its heartbreaking subtext — ''me!!'' Another time I was listening to Howard Stern and a young listener called in. He was being an a--hole so Howard hung up on him, but just before he was disconnected I heard him say, real quickly, ''I exist!'' Those were the only two times I ever heard a heckler say what he really, REALLY meant. I am real! Even if I make you mad, Mommy/Daddy, it's still proof — I EXIST!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Portrait of the Artist as an Angry Young Man: My Goodreads Review of Joe Jackson's A Cure for Gravity

A Cure for Gravity: A Musical PilgrimageA Cure for Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage by Joe Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some of my friends probably wouldn't buy it, but I was a pretty melancholy kid. Stuff affected me pretty heavily, from the offhand comments of kids and adults who didn't know they were being mean to the scenes from movies that didn't know they were being poignant. My melancholy extended to music and particularly music videos, which I watched with cultlike devotion. Among the more resonant are a couple of Joe Jackson songs off his album Night and Day: "Breaking Us in Two," in which a woman packs her things and walks the long cobblestone road to the train station to start a new life, only to then gain some fresh perspective on her current life; and "Real Men," in which a young boy (probably about my age) struggles in vain to understand what constitutes masculinity. It wasn't till twenty years later that I actually bought any Joe Jackson music, first the single "Common People" that he did with William Shatner (buy it; it's killer) and then the two-disc retrospective of his long career, which includes his hits "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want," and a wide variety of other songs. Jackson is an eclectic songwriter, drawing on his classical training and jazz interest while working hard to remain true to his working-class roots and connected to a real, popular-level audience. And yet he's something of a perennial outsider, never quite at home in any environment. The videos for both songs that resonated so strongly for me have him not as the love interest or the protagonist but as narrator/commentator, in but not of the story being told; his pop music has always reflected his appreciation for other genres, and his forays into other genres have never shed his identification with pop.

That homelessness carries through his book A Cure for Gravity, written before "Common People" but well after "You Can't Get What You Want" fell off the charts. I found myself comparing the book regularly to Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, which covers a similar time period and point in an artist's blossoming career: Martin writes up to the point where he moves from stand-up comedy to film acting; Jackson writes from childhood through to the release of his breakout album Look Sharp! Both writers are philosophical about their craft and the culture they inhabit, but the books remain quite different, demonstrating the divides of chosen art form, age (Martin is nine years older than Jackson, a fact reflected heavily in how each experienced the 1960s), place of origin (wide-open Texas for Martin; working-class north England for Jackson) and outlook. Martin writes seemingly from retirement, with the voice of someone looking back on a life of relative ease; even his hardships are cast as welcome learning opportunities, and his point is, more than anything, appreciation for life and what comes of it. Jackson's book is roughly twice as long and reflects a hardscrabble life, a perpetual outsider's look back on what he's struggled to make of his world. His portraits of influential people aren't uncharitable but they are sometimes startlingly frank. He's not retiring or even resting as he writes; his long passages of memoir are frequently supplanted by well-considered arguments about the public role of music, the responsibility of artistry, the twin temptations of both a cultural aristocracy and a consumerist culture that rejects challenge and demands to be catered to. Martin writes a memoir; Jackson writes an "agendoir."

I don't mean that as a critique, although I did occasionally find myself silently accusing Jackson of the pretentiousness that he often defends himself against throughout the book. I find his argument for/against pretentiousness pretty compelling, however. From pages 84-85: "All those old structures [of musical training and apprenticeship] have broken down, and now anyone with a few quid to spend can simply walk into a record shop [note: written in 1999; now you don't have to walk anywhere] and choose from five centuries' worth of music from all over the world. . . . All very well for the 'consumer,' but how often do we consider how it affects the artist? Where does he start, when everything is transient and disconnected? How does he know who to be, when his roots are themselves rootless? . . . Sometimes I think that categories are proliferating to such an extent that nearly everyone, eventually, will be a subgenre of one. Maybe then we'll appreciate content a bit more than style--or rediscover the true meaning of style."

Leave it to Joe Jackson, perennial outsider, first-person observer/narrator of the vicissitudes of life, to take the opportunity to write a memoir and turn it into a manifesto for artists. The book is at times abrasive, occasionally self-indulgent, sometimes indecipherably British. But it's one of my favorite books of the year, partly because Joe Jackson has proved throughout his career that he knows how to get to me, and partly because he's more or less right about the public role of music, the responsibility of artistry, the twin temptations of both a cultural aristocracy and a consumerist culture that rejects challenge and demands to be catered to. Partly, also, because I was too young to enjoy the New Wave that Jackson represents as it was happening, and I relish every window into it I come across. So, for all its pretentiousness, for all its uncomfortable frankness, for all its commingling of autobiography and cultural agenda, I'm thankful to Jackson for writing A Cure for Gravity, and I anticipate dipping back into it now and again to revisit my own past and to get insight into my own future.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Apocalypse Remixed: The Revelation Will Not Be Televised

Every once in a while the song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" by the late great Gil Scott-Heron sneaks into the queue on my iTunes, and I'm taken immediately back to my American history class with Dr. Weiss, where I first heard it alongside "Street-Fighting Man" by the Rolling Stones as an example of late-sixties ennui. But along with the nostalgia is something of an apocalyptic vision of the future. I think of this song as the kind of vibe we out to assign to the end of this world and the inauguration of the next--not the "nah nah--enjoy hell" scorn of the Left Behind set, not the disaster-addiction of the Mayan-calendar Schwartzenerds, not the often tragically wonkish numerology of the cultists. The Revelation (and the "everything new" it heralds) is the sort of thing that offers hope even as it rages against the status quo. Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested that Jesus judges us even as he saves us, and such an audacious event as the end of the world ought to inspire us to a similar work in the songs we sing and prophetic words we utter. So, with apologies and respect to Gil Scott-Heron, here's a twenty-first-century spiritualized remix of a classic song with an eye toward the future.


You will not be able to stay home, sister.
You will not be able to boot up, download or log in or log out.
You will not be able to brush your teeth with crack or meth,
Soda pop or beer during commercials,
Because the Revelation will not be televised.

The Revelation will not be televised.
The Revelation will not be offered through NetFlix
In four parts without previews or special features.
The Revelation will not show you pictures of Ronald McReagan
blowing a bugle and leading a charge by Bill Clinton,
Barack Obama and George Double-You to eat
chorizo sausage confiscated from a South Texas gap in the fence.
The Revelation will not be televised.

The Revelation will not be brought to you by the
Hallmark Tearjerk Theatre and will not star Hillary Duff
Or Timberlake or Timbaland or Gaga.
The Revelation will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The Revelation will not clear up your zits.
The Revelation will not make you look five pounds thinner,
Because the Revelation will not be televised, sister.

There will be no pictures of you and Harold and Kumar
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run,
or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.
Drudge will not be able to report the winner at 8:32 or offer sound bites from 29 districts.
The Revelation will not be televised.

There will be no viral videos of bros tazing schmoes.
There will be no viral videos of bros tazing schmoes.
There will be no pictures of Mel Gibson being
run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.
There will be no slow motion or still life of Al Sharpton
Strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and Green liberation jumpsuit
That he had been saving for just the proper occasion--Just Like Us.

Jersey Shore, Jerseylicious, and CSI New Jersey
will no longer be so damned relevant, and
no one will care if Chloe and Lamar can keep it together
Because people in darkness will take to the street
Looking for a brighter day.
The Revelation will not be televised.

There will be no tweets or Google plus ones or status updates
No streaming video of hairy armed liberationists
And J-Lo blowing her nose.
The theme song will not be written by Ke$ha or Katy Perry,
Nor sung by Toby Keith, Keb Mo, Kanye West, Kelly Clarkson, or the Killers.
The Revelation will not be televised.

The Revelation will not return to your video shortly
After a message about whiter teeth, whiter sheets, or whiter people.
You will not have to worry about performing in your bedroom,
drying your eyes, or mastering your thighs.
The Revelation will not go better with Coke.
The Revelation will not save you fifteen percent or more on your car insurance.
The Revelation will, however, get you off your high horse.

The Revelation will not be televised, will not be digitized,
will not be sanitized, will not be compromised.
The Revelation will be no ho-hum re-run, sisters;
The Revelation will be live.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

We're Just Entertainers

I used to have this standing argument with a friend of mine. He always initiated it, probably because he's better at initiating arguments (I'm conflict-avoidant) and because he found my exasperation entertaining. The argument was, which is the true universal language: music or sports?

I know, right? It's a no-brainer. Music is a universal language. Sports is just people running around, occasionally knocking into stuff or one another or both. But not so fast: much to my dismay, he actually made a compelling argument. You find sports in all cultures, and sports always attracts a crowd. Whatever the manifestation, sports invites both participation and witness, and as transportable as it is (consider as only one example the "sports evangelism" groups that travel from America to foreign lands to beat the locals at basketball and then brain them with Bibles), it's also a cultural marker. Baseball is a "national pastime"; "football" is not merely football but soccer or American or Australian or some other domestic derivation. Sumo wrestling is known the world over, but it's known as inherently Japanese.

Not so fast, though, sporties. Music is likewise both universal and contextual. You can tell the geographical origins of a music even as you enjoy it from afar. You hear it everywhere you go, either ambiently or in some intentional broadcast. It's appended to the news and the weather and our driving and our working and in some cases even our sleeping. It almost by definition demands both a performer and an audience, and the lines between the two are easily and regularly blurred. I, for example, surely annoyed all the people around me as much as they annoyed me as we all sang along, as loudly as we could, with U2 or Paul McCartney or the various other artists I've seen perform this summer.

We'd go back and forth, my friend and I, in our ritual dance/sparring match. He would observe that thousands of people pile into stadiums every week to watch the same group of people run back and forth for a few hours. I would observe that all of them would be listening to marching bands and electric organs and AC/DC riffs while they did so. He would note that evening news programs had blocks of time dedicated to sports; I would counter by pointing out the music that played at the beginning and end (and sometimes the middle) of the block. I don't think I ever lost, at least by my estimation, because I could always close with the acknowledgment that you often saw trumpet players run across a football field, but you never saw football players run across a symphony stage.

Anyway, today I read a portion of A Cure for Gravity by Joe Jackson (the musician who performed "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "Breaking Us in Two" and countless other great new wave songs of the late twentieth century) in which Jackson argued that musicians and athletes "actually have a lot in common." I was scandalized, but he makes some good points.

From a coldly rational point of view, what we [athletes and musicians] do is useless, unnecessary. Yet we pour years of dedication into it, training our bodies and minds, striving to transcend human limitations. We work in teams, we take solos, we go on tour. We're heroes and role models, and then again--as someone is always on hand to point out--we're just entertainers, and we should all be bloody well grateful if we can make a living doing something we like.
Well, that pretty much says it, I guess. Cue the music. (Ha! I win again!)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What I Would Have Said: The Vocational Life, Part Three

This is the third and final entry in a series of posts taken from a talk I wound up not giving at a men's retreat last weekend. The other two can be found below. Enjoy!


That means that when we're at work, we're actually on mission. The life of a disciple is not removed from the context of a disciple. Where we live, move and have our being is the fertile ground in which our God has planted us, and what will emerge is what God has for us to do. A watching world, observing the discipleship lived out in its presence, will be inclined to say “Surely the presence of the Lord was in this place, and I was not aware of it.” We do our work as unto the Lord, because we seek the righteousness of the Lord, and God’s righteousness applies to the way we apply ourselves to the work given us. We relate to our coworkers (and our neighbors, and the people we encounter when we’re shopping or dining out) in ways that honor the image of God in them and that inspire them, by our words but also by how we conduct ourselves, to give glory to God. We strive, whether we’re in a worship service or in a meeting, whether we’re on session or on the golf course, to see God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And we do all this with confidence that the God who spoke to Peter in a vision and who visited the household of Cornelius when no one thought God would ever do such a scandalous thing—that God has a mission for us in whatever place we find ourselves.

That also means that our mission doesn’t end with our retirement, and we don’t cease to serve God when we’re laid off. The work of the church extends to whatever we’re doing and brings us into all kinds of odd encounters. Retirement or layoffs aren’t the termination of our identity; they are the introduction of a new context. We may be being called to a new kind of work. We may be being called to advocate for people for whom retirement or joblessness have been like a kind of death; they need the good news that only a resurrected Messiah can offer, and they need the kind of justice that is characteristic of a kingdom ruled over by a merciful, loving God. We may be called to relationships with people whom our careers have blinded us to—the neighbor we’ve never had time to get to know, the staff at the restaurant or coffee shop we frequent. We aren’t lawyers or doctors or businessmen or teachers or retirees or anything like that, any more than Peter was a fisherman. We’re disciples who practice law or medicine or who teach or have retired. We capture people with a vision of the kingdom of God, where every tear is wiped dry and every suffering brought to an end.

You can’t do that sort of thing in a church; you have to be the church and go do it wherever the Lord calls you. That’s what Peter did with Cornelius, and when the church heard about it, they couldn’t say anything other than Wow, so that’s what God is up to.

We end our day in the life of a disciple where we started, with an encouragement from Jesus to dispense with the illusions we’ve inherited and embraced, and instead pursue the path that God invites us onto, a path that is as restful as it is expectant:
Do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor to your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? . . . Do not worry, then, saying “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear for clothing?” For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25, 31-33)
This is the calling of a disciple. It starts with our disillusionment—when we sometimes painfully but always redemptively part with the illusions that distract us from God. It ends with our fulfillment, as we experience the joy of the Lord giving us strength, and at the time of our death when we hear the most fulfilling words we’ll ever hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of my kingdom.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What I Would Have Said: The Vocational Life, Part Two

This past weekend I spoke three times at a men's retreat about discipleship, disillusionment and the things that make up a disciple's day. I junked my third talk in favor of talking further about some stuff that had come up with the guys, so I'm posting it in chunks here instead. Part one can be found below; here's part two. Part three is coming.


We return to Peter, who’s been a helpful guide this weekend through a day in the life of a disciple. Peter, who told Jesus to go away but who was then invited by Jesus to stop catching fish and start catching people. Peter, who struggled to embrace the label “rock” in a way that accepted both its limitations and the full redemptive possibilities of it, to the point where he could invite all of us to be rocks like him. Peter, who returned again and again to the waters of chaos because at least he understood them, but who was called again and again by God to leave the waters, even to walk on the water, as an act of discipleship. Peter’s path to his vocation was filled with fits and starts, but if I were to characterize it I would call it an invitation out of his limited vision into a much fuller vision of the world God has created and his place in it.

The best example of this, I think, is found in Acts 10. Peter, now the de facto leader of the apostles and, by extension, the early church, is in one corner. In the other corner stands Cornelius, a God-fearing centurion in the Italian regiment. God-fearers were a special category of gentiles, but they were one degree removed from the covenant community to whom Peter and the apostles belonged. Peter and Cornelius could be neighbors, but according to the understanding of the early church, they couldn’t be brothers in Christ.

And yet Cornelius had this vision, and a message from an angel of the Lord directing him to Peter. Was Cornelius one of the men that Jesus had called on Peter to catch?

Peter had his own vision, challenging his understanding of what it meant to be devout. Staying within the boundaries and prescriptions of the faith Peter was raised in was, in Peter’s mind, an act of piety, of worship. To serve God was to stay safely within the confines of his religious practice. But the word of the Lord came to Peter: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” I’d like to suggest that we have failed to acknowledge the “cleanness” of the work that God has called us to, work that takes place outside the ordained offices of the church, and so have had obstructed vision about what God would have us do in the world.

The clean jobs we recognize in the church community are too often those that are ordained and funded, and so the work attended to by those who are ordained and funded, from the preaching of the Word to the teaching of children’s Sunday school to the maintaining of the physical plant of the church, float near the top of our lists when we think of serving God and following Jesus. And these are all important and significant contributions to the vitality of the contemporary church and its sustainability into the future. But these are only a small part of the totality that God has in mind for his church.

Jesus told his disciples, before his ascension to heaven, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” This is a worldwide commission, one that simply can’t be accomplished by the special few ordained or funded by the church. Neither can it be accomplished solely from the pulpit or on the campus of any given church. The great commission—a challenge to introduce the whole world to the kingdom of God and his righteousness—is a mandate to everyone who has entered into a discipleship relationship.

Peter was challenged to set aside the parameters he had been enculturated into and invited to see the Spirit at work in the lives of people historically outside the reach of the kingdom of God. The scandal of this encounter was such that Peter had to go back to Jerusalem and explain himself. And explain himself he does, such that Acts 11 is almost a mirror of Acts 10. Reading Acts 11 feels like a redundancy until you consider that everyone, even Peter himself, was awestruck by the grace of God demonstrated in the lives of Cornelius and his household.

This is the invitation that God extends to us as his disciples. It begins with disillusionment; we cast aside the illusion that the particularities of our faith experience exempt us from a real encounter with people God loves who live outside the walls of our faith experience—that the special status we’ve afforded to a clerical class grants us dispensation from the commission Jesus laid out for his church, that the magical power we’ve assigned to a church building gives us permission to not bear witness to the work of Christ when we’re in our neighborhoods or among our friends and coworkers. Peter’s encounter of the Holy Spirit at work in the household of Cornelius radically changed the focus of the church; we are reminded by this encounter that the earth (not just the church) is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof (not just the parts that fit comfortably alongside church culture).

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What I Would Have Said: The Vocational Life, Part One

I spoke at a men's retreat this weekend. It was a small group of guys from a local church; I was at least their second choice for a speaker, but that didn't scare me off. I spoke about "a day in the life of a disciple" and focused on disllusionment as a portal to discipleship in the interior life, the intimate fellowship and the vocational life. Except that at the last minute I decided to junk my prepared talk on vocation and went another way. I'm glad I did, both because the group needed to cover some different ground than my talk covered and because now I have two or three blog posts for Loud Time. You're welcome, America.


The vocational life—what we make of the world we find ourselves in—can be immensely rewarding, both materially and emotionally. We are coached and trained and encouraged toward a particular career throughout our childhood. Kids get asked all the time, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” (Note: not what do you want to do, but what do you want to be.) Kids’ most important decisions are tailored toward their vocation: good grades and a good mix of extracurriculars are critical if you want to get into a good college so you can be set up for a good life. More risky interests such as the arts or academia or athletics are fine for our kids, so long as they have a good backup plan in place. We want our kids to be happy, and we associate their happiness with the kind of security and fulfillment that we expect a job can offer them.

Once we enter the workforce we spend the lion’s share of our week, over the course of our professional lives, at work—as much time as (and perhaps more time than) we spend sleeping or looking after our kids. We get judged for what we do at work and rewarded with paychecks and raises and job promotions and notoriety. Sometimes we get penalized but we know what we did wrong. Except when we don’t.

For all the rewards and security that our worklife purports to offer us, the facts on the ground tell us something different. Nine percent unemployment, with millions of people long-unemployed. The financial crisis that fed the unemployment rate is only one piece of the puzzle. I work in publishing, an industry that is in dramatic transition on a variety of fronts—from its delivery systems to its aesthetics and even the possibility of its obsolescence. New technologies subvert whole industries, and new cultural trends send whole professions reeling. Economic realities send jobs overseas. Suddenly the thing we spent our whole childhood preparing ourselves for, the thing we’ve given a full third or more of our everyday lives to, abandons us.

Even if we manage to survive the turbulence of a professional life, eventually it ends dramatically—if not with our death, then with our retirement. Honestly, my boss is praying that he’ll die at his desk, mainly because he’s afraid of the jokes we’d make at a retirement party. Retirement is stark. There’s a commercial right now, for some financial planning company, that consists of a series of photographs of the sun coming up on a person’s first day of retirement. It’s very inspiring, except that for so many freshly retired people it’s the first day in decades that they have no idea what lies in front of them. Retirement, beyond the mere financial vulnerability of it, can be something of an existential crisis. Here’s a little bit of a song that Ben Folds wrote about the phenomenon of retirement, its impact on a person’s self-assurance:

Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark. There’s an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall. He’s cleared all his things and he’s put them in boxes—things that remind him: “Life has been good.” Twenty-five years he’s worked at the paper. A man’s here to take him downstairs. And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, it’s time.

Depression spikes for men at retirement age. Lethargy can kick in; I know of a guy who spent the last fifteen years or so of his life sitting in a chair, despite his family’s best efforts to get him interested in something, anything. We’ve equated vocation with career, and once our career is over, what’s left for us?

To say nothing of the absurdity and frustration we encounter in the workplace. Bad decision making, political infighting and back biting, frustrating customers who are nonetheless always right, pet projects that go bad or delegated tasks that drag on our enthusiasm. In many ways our experience of vocation can be a prolonged, protracted experience of disillusionment.

But this weekend we’ve come to understand disillusionment as not a life sentence but as somehow life-giving, a dispersal of the illusions we’ve inherited from others and cultivated in ourselves about who we are and how life works, in order to invite us into a more fully real experience of the world God made and is in the process of bringing to its fulfillment. Vocation isn’t a manufactured word; it’s a word from God that suggests that we have been called into something bigger than ourselves, and when we’re called we’re simultaneously invited not to fear.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Shut Up, Dietrich Bonhoeffer!

I'm rereading Life Together by theologian, pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in anticipation of a men's retreat I'm facilitating later this month. (If you're interested in attending, I think there's still some space. Go here for more information.) I find myself wondering if I would like Bonhoeffer as much as I do if he were living and writing today, as opposed to his prophetic ministry in opposition to the rise of the Nazis in WWII-era Germany. There are contemporary writers and speakers who use similarly stark language to say arresting and provocative things, and when I read them (and when I hear them speak, as happened just a few days ago, quite frankly), more often than not I want to tell them to shut up. In my defense, I think that a person's words are judged and best understood by the times in which they were spoken or written, and by the means by which the were propagated and disseminated. In that respect, Bonhoeffer's open-secret subversive theology and spirituality in the face of historic evil gets more attention from me than, for example, a weeping prophet on a jumbo-tron. So, while I groan inwardly and smirk outwardly when I hear some flavor-of-the-month preacher telling a roomful of sycophants that we all just need to get over ourselves and start serving God better, I sit up and take notice when Bonhoeffer says something similarly straightforward and confrontational. Like this, from his chapter on "Ministry," under "The Ministry of Helpfulness":
Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks, as the priest passed by the man who had fallen among thieves, perhaps--reading the Bible. . . . It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. . . . But it is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God. . . . Only where hands are not too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness can the mouth joyfully and convincingly proclaim the message of God's love and mercy.
On my best days the spirit of this passage from Life Together, if not the text of it outright, crosses my mind in the moment I start to resent the occasional interruption or unexalted task. But most days are not my best days, I'm afraid, and if Dietrich Bonhoeffer were alive today, up on a stage with spotlights and PowerPoint and whatnot, throwing this kind of challenge in my face, I suspect I would groan inwardly and smirk outwardly, probably stifling the urge to shout "Shut up, Dietrich Bonhoeffer!" I'll try to remind myself of that next time I'm trapped in an arena with a jumbo-tron preacher in my face. God help me.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Parable of the Unexpected Teaser

My friend Nate made this video promotion for my booklet. My friend Rachel Snavely acted in it. I stood around and watched. I hope you like it. The video is approximately one minute and forty-eight seconds long. For kicks try muting the video and playing a short song behind it. I particularly enjoyed "Being Around" by the Lemonheads, "That Someone Is You" by R.E.M., "Is That Your Zebra?" by Sam Phillips, and "Bus Stop" by Tin Machine. Let me know of you find a song that you think works particularly well.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Real Realists: Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American PilgrimageThe Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's hard to communicate how very much I enjoyed this book. It took me forever to read, but that's partly because I didn't want to rush my way through it. On its face it's pretty innocuous--four Catholic writers from the mid-twentieth century and how their lives intersected--but the intersections are more profound than mere acquaintance, correspondence or coincidence. Walker Percy and Thomas Merton, for example, apparently only met once and didn't actually click, and Merton and Dorothy Day never met, only corresponded. Flannery O'Connor bears almost no formal connection to any of them, beyond a bit of correspondence with Percy and Merton's surprisingly familiar eulogy of her. So the literal ties barely bind them to one another, and yet taken together they can be considered to define American Catholicism before Vatican II, and the American post-war postmodern spiritual condition along with it.

I've read quite a bit of Merton and the slightest bit of O'Connor; I'm a fan from afar of Dorothy Day and almost completely unfamiliar with Walker Percy. But in the terms laid out by Paul Elie, by which we're meant to understand them, I found myself toggling back and forth regularly among all four of them as saints and icons of my own spiritual pilgrimage. Elie starts with a common thread of a desire for direct experience--first of life in its fullness, then of faith in its full depth. Merton and Day both experience profound spiritual conversions, guided second-handedly by the writers they read but driven by a desire for a direct encounter with God. Both became icons of Catholicism for the twentieth century and moderating voices during the turbulent anti-war, pro-civil-rights 1960s. O'Connor and Percy, Southern whites and cradle Catholics both, explored the human condition through the lens of Catholic theology without seeing their art corrupted by their piety. The "grotesque," O'Connor's word for her milieu, was the point of entry for both of them to a deeper understanding of grace. Both wrote uncomfortably about the South during perhaps its most uncomfortable era, but as local and contextual as their work is, it transcends place and time to continue to make us uncomfortable.

I found myself moved as each of the four died, years apart from each other, each in some ways more tragic than the previous. O'Connor, the benign racist who dreamed progressive dreams for her beloved South but resented the intrusion of outsiders, died first from complications brought about by lupus. Merton, the monk who strayed from his calling and perhaps never should have been cloistered in the first place, was electrocuted halfway around the world from home. Day died at a ripe old age, content and serene as one might expect a candidate for sainthood to be, but her death and the mystique that's surrounded her since have presented peculiar challenges for those who have followed in her footsteps. By the time Percy, the least natural writer of the four, died, he had seemingly deconstructed himself again and again with each new novel, in an effort to shake off the shackles his readers had forced on him. We get the sense in Percy's death that he was right from the start, that "even the rare authentically direct experience is spoiled by modern self-consciousness" (p. 278), that our desire to be fully human is hopelessly complicated by the culture we've cultivated that encourages mediated experience, secondhand faith, indirect encounters, half-humanness. Only God, any one of these four might argue, can save us now.

The impact of two world wars, a holocaust and nuclear madness on the idea of a God who created us and continues to care for us is well documented. But the idea of God, these four would suggest, is not the issue. "We who live the contemplative life," Merton acknowledged, "have learned by experience that one cannot know God as long as one seeks to solve 'the problem of God.'" Instead we ought to avail ourselves of God, to look for God in the shadow of the people who surround us, to listen for God in their laments, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. An odd call to live in the real world from people who made their marks as writers in the marketplace of ideas, but 472 pages later I'm convinced that Merton and O'Connor and Percy and Day were the real realists; everybody else was one degree removed. Would that we all could be realists of their ilk; the world would be more as God imagined it, and a much better place.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Day in the Life of the Unexpected Guest

One of the disadvantages of publishing with your employer is that you have more access to information than is healthy for an author to have. I've published with InterVarsity Press before, with Comic Book Character, and this time I told myself I'd be more mature and respectful of the boundaries between author and publisher, put there for the benefit of both. So far I've done OK, although my coworkers may beg to differ. But this week I got some unsolicited happy news about The Parable of the Unexpected Guest that I wanted to hear more about. So I broke protocol and contacted Joe Hout, an InterVarsity campus staffworker at the University of North Carolina--Greensboro, who had just ordered a hundred copies of the booklet. I asked him why and what he planned to do with them, and he very graciously ignored my brashness and sent the following response, which he also (and even more graciously) invited me to share with the world.
This semester the InterVarsity chapter at UNC Greensboro has been looking at the Lord's Prayer. We have had a series of talks where each one takes a part of that prayer and looks deeper. The week of "Hallowed be Your name" we talked about God's Holiness. We studied Psalm 24; God is holy and we are not, we don't measure up. He is over there on the holy hill and none of us can ascend it, but then there is a knock at the door. The King is at our door wanting to come in.

My mentor, Jim, who I study psalms with, had me read My Heart Christ's Home the week I studied Ps. 24. That same week I received the mailing from IVP with new books, and here was your book. I read it and loved it, was brought to tears as I reflected on God's great love for me. I shared it with my wife after reading it. That week I was meeting with Jim again and brought the book with me to show him the My Heart Christ's Home for this generation. Before I could show it to him, he said it would be great to get everyone in our chapter that book in light of the talk on God's holiness. I pulled out your book and showed it to him, and he offered to buy 100 for our chapter. Our chapter has about 45 students involved, but we wanted students to be able to give them to a friend if they wanted.

Tonight at 7 we will be giving out the books at our weekly meeting. Tonight's topic is about Forgiveness of Sins. We play a game at the beginning of our meeting and the winner gets to order any book from IVPress they want (well, not all books, $15 or less books). Tonight as a twist, after the game everyone will get a prize, The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. I will then later bring that up in the talk for the night talking about grace; you did not earn the book or win it, but you still received it. The idea also is for every person who reads it for them to follow up with me to see what they thought.
This is, quite frankly, almost exactly what I had hoped would happen with the booklet. That's why it's so little; that's why it's so cheap. It doesn't take a ton of cash to put one in the hands of your neighbor, your small group, even your whole community, and see how they react to it. Even if you disagree with this and that in it, it's meant to generate conversations about who God is, what he expects of us, and what we expect of him. If you're interested in exploring a similar strategy to Joe's, let me know and we'll try to set something up.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Joy's Shadow and Joy in the Shadows

I sort of stepped in it the other day. I happened to read an article by my friend Kent about the first day of school--Kent is the father of a new kindergartener and the codirector of Haiti Partners, which works primarily on education issues in Haiti--and thought it was good and poignant, so I retweeted it. (You can read the article here.) What got me into a muddle was my quoting Kent alongside the link: "Joy is always accompanied by a shadow if you see the world realistically." I quoted it because, honestly, who's going to click on a link without at least a taste of what's on the other side of it? But also, I agree with it, and I think it's provocative in a really positive sense. It also, apparently, is provocative in the "slippery-slope" sense of Christian orthodoxy. I got a very quick tweeted response to my post from another friend suggesting that a fruit of the Holy Spirit carries no shadow, that to look for joy's shadow is to deny the joy of the Lord. I'm heavily paraphrasing, of course; my friend had only 140 characters to communicate his concern. But I got his point; I was flirting with heterodoxy, or something like that. So, editor that I am, I tried to make the reader happy by throwing out an alternate option: "Existential joy is always accompanied by a shadow;whereas theological joy always attends to the shadows." I copied Kent on the post because I thought he would find the back and forth interesting. It slipped my mind that he didn't know what led to this proposed edit, that by editing him I was tacitly (and unconsciously) distancing myself from his words, that I was--theologically, at least--throwing him under the bus. Editor that I am, I had pandered to the reader at the expense of the writer. Rookie blunder, I know. Sorry, Kent. Maybe it's the era we inhabit, or maybe it's my predilection, or maybe it's the truth, but I see most of life as improvised. We figure it out step by step, and we learn transcendent lessons mainly in the aftermath of hard experiences or troubling observations. We are each theological in our own way, in that we look for meaning in the events that unfold in our lives and map the world we walk through, and in the process we sketch a picture of our world's source and sustaining heart. We're all theologians, but we're mostly theologians after the fact. Christianity (and really all religions) make theological assertions before the fact--based of course on authoritative sources, not to mention the theological inferences of those who have gone before us. Doing so is a service; any journey is aided by tools that light the path and keep us cognizant of our ultimate destination. It helps us theologically to know that, although Jesus tells us "in this world you will have trouble," he also tells us to "take heart [for] I have overcome the world." It helps when we step out to trust theologically that we are accompanied by the Holy Spirit, who cultivates in us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, and that against these things there is no law--we won't be judged for being loving, joyful, peaceful, and so on. It helps to know these things ahead of time, and to call them to mind as we go, but it's not the whole picture. The whole picture includes Jesus walking from the courtyard to the cross, struggling under the weight of a beam and still bleeding from the beating he'd been given, looking left and right and telling weeping women not "Take heart! I have overcome the world!" but "Do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children." The whole picture includes lots and lots of shadows. It also includes joy, of course, but not the joy we sing about; Jesus didn't sing and dance his way to the cross but rather winced and moaned from the cross, taking courage and drawing strength from the joy set before him to say "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Joy is there in the hard cold facts of the world, but it's in the shadows. That's where it does its most important work. Martin Luther emphasized the paradoxical status of each Christian as simultaneously sinner and saint. To emphasize the one and neglect the other is to not see ourselves as we really are (or, perhaps more troubling, to not see our neighbor as he or she really is). This paradox is one of those many theological lights for our path and tool for our use in making sense of the world we find ourselves in. There's another paradox that I think is true but doesn't get as much press: we are simultaneously bearers of joy and lament. To lament is to view the world realistically and to hope that things change; to joy is to view the world theologically and to accept the reality we're presented with. They commingle in ways that are perplexing and confusing, but that also complement and inform one another. That's why we can celebrate the first day of school for our kids while simultaneously lamenting the life of poverty and persecution that a lack of education is condemning billions to. That's why we can recall the events of September 11, 2001, ten years latter with tears and even anger, while simultaneously enjoying our friends and family and flourishing on September 11, 2011. We lament in joy, but we also joyfully lament. As confusing as that is, it's a survival skill God is training us in, and it's a light God is regularly casting onto our path.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On the Tenth Anniversary of September 11, 2001

"The streets of my town are not what they were . . .
May we all find salvation in professions that heal . . ."

This song by Shawn Colvin helped me in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center. I hope it helps you too.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Getting Seen as Publishing Paradigm

There's a scene in the movie Jerry Maguire where Jerry, a sports agent, is desperately fighting for a win for his fledgling new-paradigm agency on hand at the NFL draft. Client number one is on everybody's minds as the hottest thing going; client number two is Rod Tidwell, a hotheaded, self-impressed but underperforming lesser prospect. Jerry has obligations to both clients, but honestly, client one gets the lion's share of his attention, while Rod Tidwell is little more than client number two.

Rod is not above demanding fair treatment, however, so he confronts Jerry. Jerry's solution is to orchestrate a "walk through the room." The two start at one end and slowly make their way to the other, stopping intermittently as Jerry introduces Rod to star players, head coaches, team owners and media representatives. This is Jerry's strategy for Rod: Rod needs to "get seen."

Twenty-four hours later, Jerry has only Rod left; client number two had betrayed him and signed with another agent last-minute. A year later, Rod is the hottest thing going, and Jerry and Rod both get a happy ending. Rod got seen, and the pieces fell into place.

This is how we do it, isn't it? We gain and sustain whatever credibility we have--whatever authority, trust and even so meaningless a commodity as relevance--simply (and, increasingly, only) by getting seen. Celebrity magazines run photos of stars buying toilet paper as evidence that they're "Just Like US!" They run bullet lists itemizing the restaurants and bars and after-Oscar parties and vacation resorts where famous people have been spotted. Celebrity is the new normal.

It's not just movie stars and pop singers, though: journalists and politicians alike clamor to be among those seen at places of devastation, or at restaurants that carry the mystique of "the people" of a particular place. And it's not just journalists and politicians, either. Laypeople post photos and videos from every corner of our experience. We track down our image and tag it. We deselect unflattering photographs and make our most flattering pictures our persona. We brand ourselves with the places we allow ourselves to be photographed, or where we manage to convince people to photograph us. We get seen, then we make sure people see us getting seen. And on and on it goes.

Authors--at least authors of nonfiction--used to be relatively protected from this semi-salacious global positioning strategy. Of course there was a guild of peers among which they were known, but beyond the guild an author's thesis allowed and even required them to transcend such silly stargazing. That's no longer the case, of course; even among their guild, let alone beyond it, authors of the most pragmatic, utilitarian tome have to get out there and hustle it.

A troubling gauge of a proposed book's success, then, is the author's perceived aspiration to celebrity, a perceived capacity to get seen often by the right people, with the right people, in the right places. Fortunately for their families, thanks to contemporary technologies, much of this will to celebrity can be done from the couch; much celebrity-cultivation can be conducted through friend and follower counts and blog posts gone viral. But it's not solely virtual; wannabe authors still have to get seen in the real world with the right people, places and things, so much so that one wonders what time they have left to write.

Some of them don't have time left to write, of course; hence the phenomenon of "ghost writers." While ghost writers have been around a long time, their prevalence is growing; these "unseen" people take whatever content a named/seen author has time to dash off and turn it into something coherent and readable. They get paid for their trouble, and in many cases they get some name recognition four or five printings/years/million copies sold down the line. But really, what does it profit a person to gain a lot of money while losing their personhood? Ghosts are, existentially as well as strategically, immaterial. It's easy for an author or a publisher to imagine replacing one ghost with another simply to cut costs or to try something new.

The net effect of "ghosting" is that the notion that a book is a collaborative exercise is made more concrete. Not just cover designers and sellers and marketers and editors and distributors and manufacturers are partners in an author's effort; now even the writing is outsourced. In such an age, content itself becomes almost an afterthought; where the author is, what company the author is keeping and who the author is wearing have the capacity to gradually eclipse what the author is thinking or feeling or saying--or, more accurately perhaps, the author becomes increasingly the gloss painted over an idea that comes entirely from elsewhere. I can imagine the day when two authors introduce themselves to one another in a green room somewhere. "What's your name?" the first one asks. "Legion," the other responds, "for we are many." "What a coincidence!" retorts the first. "That's my name too!"

I'm told that part of the idea behind ubuntu, a worldview with its origins in sub-Saharan tribal Africa, is the need to differentiate spirit-beings from real humans. "I see you," one greets another, to which the other responds, "I am seen." This is functionally equivalent to Rene Descartes's "I think, therefore I am," in the sense that the net effect is to establish the identity, even the reality, of a person. But what makes it different is the need for two people, not one; it's the community that makes the individual human. "It takes a village to raise a child" is not an insight easily arrived at through Cartesian philosophy, but it's almost fundamental to ubuntu.

(I must quickly note that I may be confusing my folk-origins of ubuntu with the mythology employed in the movie Avatar. I haven't seen Avatar, but I'm told the blue people greet one another with "I see you." That, of course, came from somewhere, which may well be from the concept of ubuntu. My apologies if I've inadvertently mashed up the seed of a continent's civilization with a cheeseball plot device from an overrated movie.)

Anyway, I don't know what to say about this troubling trend of authors divorcing themselves from the task of writing, or the uncomfortable acquiescence of the publishing industry to the notion that some people should be satisfied being ghosts instead of whole persons, or that readers are becoming increasingly satisfied "reading" what only famous people have "written." One net effect--even and perhaps especially in Christian publishing, where I work--may be that famous people will be joined by pretty people, witty people, and eventually those pesky people that you friend or follow or otherwise indulge just to get them off your back, as the only people who get book contracts.

If you think I'm being overly alarmist, look at photographs of the stars of pop music before MTV and after: a shocking percentage of late-1970s rock stars were unattractive, whereas a couple of years later every star had a stylist, and no one without a stylist was a star. Video killed the radio star, indeed. Then consider the past eight presidential elections and ask yourself which candidate was more likeable, the one you'd rather have a beer with, and you'll find that the more natural entertainer was in every case the one elected leader of the free world. Then move to television and consider why Levi Johnston and Kate Gosselin and Snookie get to do whatever they want whenever they want to whomever they want, including publish a bestseller; it's because they wore down our defenses with their constant barrages of self-assertion.

This is the ephemeral environment we live and move and publish in. To be a writer is either to be utterly anonymous (the ghost) or arena-ready (the celebrity). There is precious little middle left for the craftspeople and heralds of messages who toil in private as a service to the public. As an author myself, I'm worried--mainly because I'm not popular or charismatic or good looking enough to be a celebrity, and I'm far too vain to be utterly anonymous. As an editor I'm worried--mainly because it takes a village to publish a book, and I'd rather live and work in a village populated by people than by legions and ghosts.

Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: there is a God who is Lord of all things seen and unseen, and to this God nothing is unseen. This God saw a slave girl named Hagar, who had escaped from harsh treatment into the harsh desert pregnant and alone, and offered her direction and purpose and hope. Hagar called this God "the One who sees me," and this God gave her a name and a story in his book. This God sent a letter to the church in Sardis, accusing them of having "a reputation of being alive" but in actuality settling for being mere ghosts. Nevertheless, this God offered those who defied the ways of their world to "never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels." No person is unseen by this God, and no publisher or author or reader or human being should ever forget it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Shallows: My Goodreads Review

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our BrainsThe Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, I finally did it. After a year of private grumbling and modest pushback against the devotees of Nick Carr's The Shallows, I finally read it for myself. I did so as an act of intellectual humility, in part, and to accommodate another act of intellectual humility--I had invited some Carrites to present their buzzkill take on the Internet era at a retreat I was coordinating, and all we retreatants had effectively committed ourselves to reading it in advance. So I read it. And my opinion has not changed by much.

What I never really doubted was the strength of Carr's writing and research. He's almost literally voluminous, drawing on insights spanning millennia and a variety of professions and disciplines to offer what is necessarily a preliminary critique of the Internet as a cultural phenomenon. You have to admire Carr's capacity to synthesize these disparate data and anecdotes, even to find them and intuit their value to his argument. What bugs me about The Shallows is what a buzzkill it really is.

The premise of the book comes from Carr's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid," and his most journalistic material is a sort of corporate philosophical biography of that organization. Google is admittedly audacious and self-righteous in its quest to efficiently collect and disseminate all the world's information, and Carr rightly wonders what is lost when Google becomes the de facto conduit through which all the world's information--from protons and neurons to War and Peace--funnels into our sensory and meditative minds. We become less researchers, less readers, less inquirers, and more, well, googlers.

That much is obvious; what's most interesting about Carr's book is what that evolution/devolution entails, which is a radical rewiring of our brains. I'm reminded of a scene from The Office, in which Michael Scott is challenging the new web-oriented sales pitch of his paper company. Eager to prove the enduring strength of good old fashioned pressing the flesh and hand-delivering fruit baskets, Michael sets out in his Chrysler Sebring convertible, and the car's GPS promptly instructs him to drive into a lake. Any idiot would have stopped the car, but Michael is not just any idiot; no matter how much he protests his enslavement to the virtual gods of computer code, he does what they tell him and suffers for it.

This is not exactly Carr's point, but he does suggest, in Mcluhanite form, that as we enjoy the benefits of the Internet and its recalibration of information-gathering, we are also forsaking/abandoning/being stripped of intellectual capacities that don't fit the mold of the online age. Principal among these capacities are deep analytical and meditative thinking, empathy and moral judgment, long-term memory, and whatever else of the classic intellect requires time and nonlinear inefficiency to flourish.

I know, right? Buzzkill. Especially because Carr doesn't offer any clear suggestions for mitigating this remapping of our brains. They're there, I suppose--go for walks in nature, read booklength treatments on paper, sleep regularly--but they're not pointed suggestions, and they hardly seem adequate to combat the Internet juggernaut. I found myself thinking that someone read Carr's article on Google and thought These five thousand words were good; I'll bet fourteen times as many words on the same topic would be great! Carr writes, I suspect, mainly to impress, to remind us that human beings can think and process information and make alarmist prophecies better than any old Internet. That he does; what he doesn't do is give us any guidance into keeping our brains appropriately nimble and sharp and deep and strong.

I probably came to the book with this assessment from the beginning, I'm willing to admit. Carr's reminder is that while something is gained via new technologies, something is also lost. He needs to be regularly reminded, of course--especially given the futility that charges throughout the book--that while something is lost, something is also gained. Maybe it's my profession--as an editor at a Christian publisher--but I've been trained and charged to regularly present "payoffs" in the pages of a book. We call them "cookies," and we try hard to "put the cookies on the bottom shelf" so that people are sure to find them and put them to good use. Carr's book is cookie-less; it's seventy-thousand-some words of drinking castor oil in the vain hope that it will somehow fix what ails us. Knowledge is power, Carr agrees with Google, but unlike Google, you leave Carr's book without a good sense of what to do with the power you've been given.

The Smothers Brothers once recorded a take on the story of John Henry, who laid tracks for cross-country rail. John Henry was the fastest, strongest worker on the line, but one day the powers that be brought in a steam drill to do the line-worker's work. It could outpace everyone, and to prove it, John Henry was challenged to a duel. "Wop wop wop," the Smothers Brothers sang, giving voice to the tense drama of man versus machine, the futile battle against human obsolescence. Their song ended as follows:

"Well, John Henry said to the captain,
'By God, I ain't no fool.
Before I die with a hammer in my hand
I'm gonna get me a steam drill too.'"

Nick Carr uses Google. He may well be on the Internet right now. To him, to the powers that be, to myself, to all of us, I say: Keep exercising your brain in a variety of ways. And when new technologies present themselves and threaten to rewire us in their image, well, shut up and deal with it.

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Let It Be Chords: Or, Thoughts on the Petrified Paragraph

I think in paragraphs. I would like to think differently.

Paragraphs are singular, linear thoughts. They begin and end with hard returns. They're completely self-contained and, certainly in the case of nonfiction, they're generally intended to isolate and direct the thinking of the reader.

Meanwhile . . .

Poets think in lines, in syllables, in phonetics.

Musicians assign tones to words, so that "G" is for "When I find my" and "A" is for "self" and "E" is for "in" and "G" is for "times of" and "C+D" is for "trou+ble."

Programmers think in code--sequences of characters that make no linear sense but create something vibrant and utterly different.

Filmographers and cartoonists think in scenes which words then embellish. Painters think in scenes which words only obscure and diminish.

Writers and editors, like me, think in paragraphs--a steady, unrelenting progression of letters and spaces and punctuation marks that demand coherence and linearity. Each word matters but only in relation to the whole; a misplaced word, meanwhile, unsettles the whole bunch.

I think in paragraphs. I would like to think differently--at least on occasion. I would like to write, at least now and then, like a poet, like a musician, like a programmer, like a filmographer or cartoonist, like a painter.

Ah, but allowing myself to write in these ways, even and perhaps especially only now and then, is to extract myself from the swirling eddy of the paragraph, and how does one do that? And how--and even why--would one then return?


Sorry, feeling a bit hippy-trippy today. Apparently I've been listening to too much late-sixties Beatles music lately.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Shallows: The Rise of the Machines

Someone ought to write a novel or screenplay about this theory of technology, as described in Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. Maybe, in fact, someone already has:

For centuries, historians and philosophers have traced, and debated, technology's role in shaping civilization. Some have made the case for what the sociologist Thorstein Veblen dubbed "technological determinism"; they've argued that technological progress, which they see as an autonomous force outside man's control, has been the primary factor influencing the course of human history. Karl Marx gave voice to this view when he wrote, "The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist." Ralph Waldo Emerson put it more crisply: "Things are in the saddle / And ride mankind." In the most extreme expression of the determinist view, human beings become little more than "the sex organs of the machine world," as [Marshall] McLuhan memorably wrote in the "Gadget Lover" chapter of Understanding Media. Our essential role is to produce ever more sophisticated tools--to "fecundate" machines as bees fecundate plants--until technology has developed the capacity to reproduce itself on its own. At that point, we become dispensable.
I'm reminded of Soylent Green, which you may recall "is people!" But that's more Marxist than Emersonian; the corporation is still in the saddle there, whereas techno-determinists are warning us that we don't actually control the technologies we're creating and mass-producing. The assembly line, with its drone workers, extends far beyond the manufacturing plant to the brainstorming session, where tablet computers and Blackberries allegedly conspire to plant thoughts in our slave-brains to make them better, stronger, faster. Right now they still need us to propagate their species. But what will become of us when our gadgets start mating? The thought of it is enough to make me make sure that my wife's iPhone and mine stay in separate rooms.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Male-Pattern Exhibitionism

I have a new cause I'm fighting for: an end to male-pattern exhibitionism. This, it seems to me, is among the more pressing concerns of our day, ranking alongside the imminent end of America's global economic domination (after which we'll have to settle for being the world's only remaining military superpower), the questionable nature of muppets Bert and Ernie's relationship (the best word I've heard on this was thirdhand: "Everybody cares whether Bert and Ernie are gay; nobody cares that Oscar is homeless"), and the looming fall television lineup. I've seen the signs of it all summer: guys walking around shirtless, and everybody else accepting this as normal.

Friends, this must not stand.

The tragedy of male-pattern exhibitionism is pervasive, reaching far beyond the gym. It's not just Ryan Gosling and the Situation who are showing off their abs, but men with beer guts the size of Delaware and backs as hairy as Snooky's extensions closet. I've seen toddlers and octogenarians wandering around shirtless; I've seen topless men on park benches and at outdoor concerts and, sigh, on the sidewalk outside my house. I'm honestly dreading our church's fall picnic because any number of my fellow congregants haven't gotten the message that WE DON'T NEED TO SEE THAT.

Frankly, I don't understand the appeal at all of walking around shirtless. It makes some sense at the beach or the pool, I suppose, but in the parking lot of a grocery store? In the audience at a tent lecture on social activism at a Christian music festival? Maybe I'm too self-conscious about my body, but there are reasons for me to be so. And trust me, there are reasons for you to be self-conscious about your body too, Mr. Navel-Gazer.

All physical quirkiness aside, there's a more troubling aspect of male-pattern exhibitionism, considering how widespread women's body-image issues are. Many women fret and anguish over their bodies. Men--at least a certain genome of men--seem to suffer no such self-consciousness. They flaunt their physical selves, while undoubtedly at least some of the women around them suffer self-loathing in their ill-fitting clothing. The men live free, letting it all hang out with wild abandon, daring the rest of us to look negatively or judgmentally on their physique.

There's something admirable about that, I suppose. I once read an article by a woman who noticed how much more assertive men were with their body posture on public transportation than women were--women sat tightly and took up as little space as possible, while men sprawled out and enveloped the space around them. So she started sitting like a man and felt immediately empowered by the experience. A liberated sense of body image is something we all ought to strive for; our bodies are temples, you might say, and to let others determine the value of our temple is to show disrespect for the One who lovingly crafted our temple in secret.

But the solution to the tyranny of body image isn't exhibitionism. Nudity never solved anything, did it? (Insert joke here.) By flaunting their physicality men assert a kind of cultural dominance over women, whether they think they do or not. "In a civilized society, clothing is mandatory for everyone, but less mandatory for men." The truly liberated man will recognize that his freedom is caught up in the freedom of others, so he will express his solidarity by remaining fully clothed, and instead rejecting the manifold small and large ways that our culture oppresses us all by defining beauty in severely limited ways.

But honestly, guys, mainly I just want you to put on a shirt. I want it so badly that I'm thisclose to praying for an early winter. Because honestly, guys, WE DON'T NEED TO SEE THAT.


Support the crusade against male-pattern exhibitionism! For a two-dollar donation I'll ship you a copy of The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Click on the "buy now" button in the right sidebar under the book cover image.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Papa's Blessings: My Goodreads Review

Papa's Blessings: The Gifts That Keep GivingPapa's Blessings: The Gifts That Keep Giving by Greg Bourgond

***Full disclosure: The author sent me this book with the understanding that I would review it.***

I've never been into the men's movement. When I was fresh out of college, churches were going gaga over Promise Keepers, a nationwide movement and series of rallies designed to get men more active in their families and their churches. Lots of my friends went to PK events and benefited from them; I always resisted. Maybe it's an authority issue for me, but for whatever reason, I wasn't interested.

Likewise with the late-modern "focus on the family" that characterizes much of contemporary evangelicalism and coincides pretty naturally with the evangelical men's movement. There's a common convergence between the father wound, on the one hand, and the calling to be a good father, on the other. I have a good relationship with my dad and have yet to discern a father wound, and I don't have kids, so my focus has largely been on other things. As such, I've not read much on the subject of Greg Bourgond's Papa's Blessings. Bourgond has as much experience in what I might call the "culture of blessing" as I have a lack of experience. In Papa's Blessings we are introduced to his family, his proteges, his mentor, and other people who taken together make up his culture of blessing.

It's important to acknowledge that "blessing" incorporates a much broader set of phenomena than what makes up Bourgond's focus. He offers a helpful brief explanation of three types of blessing: the "action-oriented" blessing, in which we notice need and work to address it; the "responsive" blessing, in which we notice possibility (or, negatively, an absence of hope) and speak hope into it; and the "strategic" blessing, in which we notice the people in our lives, speak meaning into their future and mark significant moments of transition. Strategic blessings offer a unique vitality and momentum to the people being blessed, and indeed the community witnessing the blessing. Bourgond is writing about strategic blessing, and he's an expert on it.

The logic of strategic blessing is found in the Scriptures, principally in a few key passages--Jacob stealing his brother's blessing, Jacob later blessing two of his grandchildren in reverse order, the apostle Paul commissioning his protege Timothy to lead the second generation of the church. Each of those is a unique story, of course; I would have liked to see a fuller exposition of the scriptural grounding for blessings, one that synthesizes these various stories. But really that's not the point of this book. In Papa's Blessings Bourgond is offering a roadmap. We watch him bless each of his grandchildren and see a picture of the "wall of blessing" where those statements are permanently installed. Every time the kids come over, we learn, they visit the wall, and the blessing is reiterated. We watch Bourgond bless his protege, and in turn we watch Bourgond be blessed by his mentor. We read the words and get a good mental image of the setting in which each blessing takes place. We feel the hand of blessing on our shoulders, feel the breath of blessing on our foreheads. We find ourselves observing a culture in which blessing is normal, and we see the benefits: values being internalized as personal virtues, vocations being accepted and undertaken, new opportunities being opened and embraced.

If you're drawn to the culture of blessing, but are a bit unclear about their real value or confused about how to get started, this book will be useful. It reads quick, offers a ton of examples and suggestions, and is warm and familial in tone. Read it, and you'll find yourself well on the way to creating a culture of blessing in your own context.

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Saturday, August 06, 2011

Goodreads Book Review: Bossypants, by Tina Fey

BossypantsBossypants by Tina Fey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My year of memoir/autobiography/biography continued with Bossypants by Tina Fey, which had been built up in my imagination more than most books are in any given year. Tina Fey is a lot like Barack Obama--young and impressive, accomplished and endearing, a kind of American story that people like to claim for America. In the first year of his presidency Obama was granted the Nobel Peace Prize; in her fortieth year Fey became the youngest-ever winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Both awards felt, to me, a little like reading the last page of a mystery novel before you read chapter one: a perfectly sensible but utterly premature climax.

I'm the same age as Fey, and I think as I read that I identified with her view of the world and how she communicates it. She struck me as being slightly uncomfortable but generally un-self-conscious in the oscillations between absolutism and relativism that characterize the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. For Bossypants this collision manifests itself in hyperbole that extends well beyond the comic: Alec Baldwin could not be, and consequently is not, as brilliant and unparalleled an actor as Fey makes him out to be. Neither is she, in that Gen-Xy preemptively disappointed way, "the worst," as she reiterates repeatedly late in the book. Not every slight or snub or insult is rooted in misogyny, but sometimes in Bossypants that seems to be the argument. This is who we are, we forty-somethingers--mid-career, mid-epoch, and struggling to find our footing, alternately making mountains out of molehills and molehills of ourselves.

I have a great deal of respect for Tina Fey. She's talented, funny, historically significant. 30 Rock is hilarious. I can see why she's won so many accolades so early in her career. But she's only forty, and while Mark Twain was once advised that forty is the age to start your memoir, there's no need to rush things. I read Steve Martin's memoir Born Standing Up earlier this year, and found it both shorter and slower-paced than Bossypants, and a more enjoyable reading experience. Martin waited some twenty years to write about his first thirty years, and I learned from it. In contrast, Bossypants felt rushed, like another angst-producing item Fey wanted desperately to check off her to-do list. I'd invite her to slow down and enjoy life a little more, and write her memoir with the benefit of hindsight. She might do well to reflect on this line, from the part where she writes about Oprah's guest spot on 30 Rock, shot on the same day as her Saturday Night Live spot with Sarah Palin: "When Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your f***ing life." I look forward to twenty years from now, when I can curl up with my eyeglass-frame computer and read Bossypants II.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Word to Your Father: Tina Fey on Her Dad and People of His Ilk and Era

From Bossypants:

When I was a kid there was a TV interstitial during Saturday morning cartoons that went like this: "The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you. / You're the most important person!" Is this not the absolute worst thing you could instill in a child? They're the most important person? In the world? That's what they already think. You need to teach them the opposite. They need to be a little afraid of what will happen if they lose the top of their Grizzly Adams thermos. . . .

The Silent Generation . . . are different from their children. They cannot be "marketed to." They don't feel "loyalty" to Barnes and Noble over Borders. If you told Don Fey that you never go to Burger King, only McDonald's, because you "grew up with the Hamburglar," he would look at you like a moron.

Something to think about, yes?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

1000000 Miles in 1000 Years: My Review

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My LifeA Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life by Donald Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's been a while now since I've read a Donald Miller book. I read Blue Like Jazz long after it came out in order to figure out why everyone was freaking out over it. I enjoyed it, although I don't make a habit of reading memoir, so I don't think at the time I could rightly judge whether it was good, great or something other. Anyway, in the interim between reading BLJ and now reading this, I've read a number of articles by Don Miller, seen him speak a number of times, and I know that when he writes a book, it's because he can't get something out of his mind. For this book, the things he can't get out of his mind are the mechanics of storytelling, and the notion that God is a storyteller, and we are God's stories.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is ostensibly about the process Miller went through when he was approached to make a movie out of BLJ. As it happens, books, particularly memoirs, don't become movies overnight. He went through all kinds of uncomfortable epiphanies about how thinking is not necessarily living, how comfort is not necessarily compelling. In refashioning BLJ into something that other people might actually sit through for two hours, Miller began to wonder whether the life he was living was a good enough story. We meet an array of interesting people, live vicariously through several of Miller's more interesting episodes (hiking the Andes, biking the United States, et cetera, et cetera) and reflect with Miller on how the dynamics of story intersect with the demands of life.

The thing about Miller's writing is how effortlessly informal it is. He writes as though ideas have just come to him; one wonders how he types with his shoulders seemingly perpetually shrugged. He has a dry wit, so dry you actually wonder if the clearly hyperbolic act he's attributed to his roommate actually happened. It's a winsome style of writing that needs no justification, really. No wonder people love him. The thing more worth wondering about is how such a plainspoken approach has landed him not only so many book contracts, but so many book sales.

I work in Christian book publishing, and I've lost track of how many first-time authors compare themselves to Donald Miller, compare their book to BLJ. The intuitively understand, even as they try to convince us otherwise, that Miller's publishing story is utterly anomalous, totally unique. That is, after all, how a story ought to be.

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