Saturday, January 28, 2012

Back in the Future Business: My GoodReads Review of Bill Clinton's Back to Work

Back To Work: Why We Need Smart Government For A Strong EconomyBack To Work: Why We Need Smart Government For A Strong Economy by Bill Clinton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1992 I voted in a presidential election for the second time. My candidate was Ross H. Perot; having graduated from college into a fumbling economy in which I couldn't find gainful employment, I remember telling people that I thought a president with good business sense would be worth four years of disregard for civil rights.

Based at least partly on the sway of weird voters like myself toward Perot, Bill Clinton was elected to his first of two presidential terms, and the United States enjoyed an eight year run of a pretty good economy, which President Clinton spends a great deal of ink reminding us in the early part of his book Back to Work. He does so in that slick, casual, ole buddy way that he always has, which translates into print pretty well and manages to demonstrate his superiority over those who preceded and followed him in office without directly insulting them. It's pretty brilliant, actually.

With the benefit of time, and with his own freedom post-presidency to speak relatively freely, it's easy to see what made President Clinton a good president, and to actually get a little excited about the proposals he's putting forward in Back to Work--excited in the face of a still-limping economy, oddly enough. Clinton's premise here is that modern malaise is a result, in large part, of an anti-governmentism that ushered in Ronald Reagan's two-term presidency and, to be fair, yielded its own economic resurgence. "Government isn't the answer to your problems," Reagan famously declared; "Government is the problem." With that he deregulated industries, marginalized the work of many government programs, and generally subverted the legitimacy of federal government as an institution.

Clinton doesn't quite offer the opposite premise, but he rightly confronts the absurdity inherent in the claim: a world in which democratically elected representatives whose mandate is for the well-being "into remotest futurity" (my new favorite phrase, from Thomas Jefferson, I believe) are inherently dangerous to taxpaying people trying to get by in a free economy managed by unchecked giant multinational companies with obligations only essentially to shareholders and an inherent responsibility to exploit natural resources to their fullest extent and to get as much energy out of employees for as little cost as possible . . . I guess I'm a little worked up. As Clinton puts it, "Big corporations don't get hurt by the current system. They just put plants in other places, create good jobs there, and leave their earnings there" (p. 133). Governments are like family: they have to love you. Corporations are like, well, corporations: everything is negotiable.

Clinton confronts the premise of anti-governmentalism in a winsome way, making a brief positive case for government (in reality, anti-governmentalism doesn't merit a long response) before getting down to how government, collaborating creatively with business, can create environments where truly amazing things can happen.

There are as many problems with Clinton's worldview as there are with Reagan's, of course: government collusion with megabusiness has as many pitfalls as government subservience to megabusiness, if the larger vision of what makes for a good society isn't kept in place. But it is actually pretty energizing to see the curtain pulled back on a creative approach to governmental economic policy, which this book effectively is. Clinton offers forty-six preliminary ideas for getting people working again, dealing with bank jitters, and revitalizing American innovation. They all sound both good and plausible, based again largely on Clinton's unique delivery: he makes the novel seem normal and the normal seem novel. The Secretary of State, for example, is praised for her ongoing work in "commercial diplomacy," which strikes me as a task more appropriately managed by the Commerce Secretary and which seems like it would distract from the State Department's important work in cultivating democracy and human rights overseas. Meanwhile, many of the examples of corporate innovation for the public good held up by Clinton have a long history, and some seem to be pretty widely accepted business models. Clinton showers such relatively mainstreamed business-government collaboration with praise; their practitioners are Edison and Einstein and Mother Teresa rolled into one. You forget that they've been doing what they're doing for twenty or thirty years now, throughout the Era of Anti-Government. Again, this is part of Clinton's leadership genius, why some call him beloved and others call him slick. To affirm one, I'd suggest, is not to deny the other.

I would have greatly appreciated some endnotes in this book; the claims Clinton makes about his and others' presidencies, as well as the outcomes of his proposed best practices, are rosily enough presented that my "He's a politician" skepticism did occasionally kick in. And yet, I found myself inspired--much more confident than I had been in alternative sources of energy (wind and solar, in particular), in the potential contained in government-corporate collaboration, and ultimately more knowledgable about the role of government in both navigating economic downturn and, more importantly, stimulating innovation and prosperity. The reality is that government isn't a problem; government simply is, and it is what we the people make of it. Clinton's vision for the short term is undergirded by his strong faith in the possibility of creative governance; that faith and vision is actually quite contagious.

This book continues, for me, the Year of Overdue Books. It's an odd inclusion, since the idea for what I'm reading this year is "books I should have read long ago," and Back to Work only came out a few months ago. But resolution to the current economic troubles is long overdue, as is a cogent confrontation of the "Government is bad for you" bias of too many people. President Clinton provides both effectively here. As he puts it, America needs to get back in the future business. If we accept his premises and pursue his recommendations, to quote a song of my childhood from the great Timbuk 3, "the future's so bright, I gotta wear shades."

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Year of Overdue Books: My GoodReads Review of the Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm XThe Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I started reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X in December 2010, during my Year of Biography, when I was reading only books dealing with history surrounding specific people. I finished reading it in January 2011, during what I'm calling my Year of Overdue Books, or books (or topics) that I should have read already by now. That seems appropriate to me; I bought my copy of Malcolm X's autobiography about nine years ago at a conference and it's been sitting around since then, but more to the point, it's a seminal book for a particular historical moment that's always been of interest to me. I guess I was a little scared (I'm a white man, and the bulk of the book makes a pretty compelling case that the white man is the devil--although Malcolm X steps back from that sweeping claim after he meets some white people of good will on his pilgrimage to Mecca). But I finally stepped up and took the book on, and I'm glad I did.

Having grown up in the post-Civil-Rights-Movement North, living (as I did) in a relatively cloistered small city in the midwest, I didn't have much direct exposure to racial tensions. That's not to say that there wasn't racial tension present; it's just that my town, like most in the Northern United States, had figured out how to keep different ethnicities from confronting one another on a day-to-day basis. As such, much of what's described in X's early-twentieth-century Michigan, Boston and New York was exotic and surreal to me: his father's death at the hands of whites has a chilling casualness to it, as did the removal of X and his siblings from his mother's home. The bizarre predictability of whites coming to Harlem to indulge their hedonism and curiosity about African American culture, and the accommodation of their indulgences by black business owners and customers alike, was startling. I've come to imagine a wall of separation, of sorts, that divided black from white prior to (and even since) the Civil Rights Movement akin to the Apartheid policy in twentieth-century South Africa; that wall is certainly there, but from X's account it's much more porous than I assumed, and the points of connection X draws our attention to did little to elevate human dignity on either side of the wall.

Through X's account we come to understand the logic of subsistence; in a culture that is horribly unbalanced in fundamentally unjust ways, hustling and otherwise working outside the established economy simply makes sense. It's not sustainable, of course; the Powers That Be never stop being, and despite X's sensibility, intelligence and creativity, the law caught up to him and sent him to prison. Doing so, it turns out, was effectively like locking him in a library, because time and solitude channeled his intellect toward more systematic, conceptual thinking. I'm reminded of a line from Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from a Birmingham jail: "What else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?" That's what occupied X's time, and that's what ultimately set him on the course of the Nation of Islam and his later conversion.

I'm infinitely more familiar with King than with X. King gets taught in white classrooms and preached in white churches; King gets a national holiday and a national monument. I would take none of those things from him; I'm a great admirer of Dr. King and regard him as a national treasure and a great figure for the ages. It's also important to realize that, X's critiques notwithstanding, King's movement in the 1950s and 1960s met powerful and malevolent resistance from the white Powers That Be. King and his colleagues were certainly speaking truth to power, and they paid for it in a multitude of ways including martyrdom. But there was another side to the Civil Rights Movement that coalesced for a time in Malcolm X, and it tragically gets underplayed even, I think, today. For example, the controversy that erupted over President Obama's Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright, centered around a video of him preaching shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001, when he said something to the effect of the destruction of the World Trade Center was a case of "the chickens coming home to roost." Conservatives cried foul and openly worried about the influence of such anti-Americanism on a potential president. None of the reports I read observed Rev. Wright's allusion (intentional, I'm certain) to Malcolm X's improvised response to a reporter asking his opinion about the assassination of President Kennedy:

"Without a second thought, I said what I honestly felt--that it was, as I saw it, a case of "the chickens coming home to roost." I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, finally had struck down this country's Chief of State. I said it was the same thing as had happened with Medgar Evers, with Patrice Lumumba, with Madame Nhu's husband. . . .

"It makes me feel weary to think of it all now. All over America, all over the world, some of the world's most important personages were saying in various ways, and in far stronger ways than I did, that America's climate of hate had ben responsible for the President's death. But when Malcolm X said the same thing, it was ominous."

This was X's great gift, I think: he was an incisive cultural critic in the truest sense of the word: he cut into the culture right where the wound was, and was unapologetic in doing so. He spares no one his honest appraisal, which is undoubtedly why he got into trouble so much. But who can fault honesty? And who can ignore his appraisals without becoming complicit in maintaining unjust status quos? In my first book, Comic Book Character, I likened Martin Luther King to the X-Men's leader, Professor X, and his nemesis, Magneto, to Malcolm X. I'm sure I wasn't the first to do so; in fact I'm confident that this was in the mind of the characters' creators from the beginning. Professor X wanted the world to accept and live with and enjoy the fruit of equal association with the persecuted class he represented; Magneto wanted to shake off the bonds of the oppressors and establish a new world order "by any means necessary." At the time of his origins, Magneto was the leader of the "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants," but he's since dropped the word evil from the description because he wasn't evil, he was angry, and legitimately so. And the tension that perpetuated between Professor X's reconciliation vision and Magneto's battle against oppression gave the ethical challenges of different people cobbled together real shape and even real hope. That's also the case with King and X: the two challenges they presented to white hegemony in the United States, while seemingly irreconcilable, have worked together now over decades to reshape our understanding of racial reconciliation and racial justice. Again from King's letter: "I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth."

Tucked away in the Autobiography of Malcolm X is a moment of reflection about how he would be judged by history: "Sometimes, I have dared to dream to myself that one day, history may even say that my voice--which disturbed the white man's smugness, and his arrogance, and his complacency--that my voice helped to save America from a grave, possibly even a fatal catastrophe." I daresay that in this and many ways, Malcolm X seems to have proved himself right.

***

I finished reading this book on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth. I didn't want to take away from King's day, however, so I delayed my review till now. I'm sensitive like that.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Primary Fever: Conversion Stories Trump All

I forget, in the years between presidential elections, how enthralled I tend to get with the electoral process. My wife forgets too, until she comes home (or back from the bathroom) to find that I've turned on MSNBC to catch the latest poll numbers or when she sees that I've stored more than one debate to our DVR. It's primary fever, and it's goonie and nerdy, I get it.

This year, at least at this point in the process, all my mania goes to the Republicans, since President Obama is running unchallenged by members of his party. Most of the attention has gone to the "anyone but Mitt Romney" effect--all but one major Republican candidate (the decidedly Romney-esque John Huntsman) enjoyed a brief surge as the candidate who might unseat the front-runner and heir apparent. But as an evangelical, one of the traditionally heavily-courted voting blocs in Republican politics, I'm interested in how religion is (or, more to the point, is not) playing a significant role in the selection of a candidate and, potentially, our next president.

Since the late 1970s and the emergence of the "Moral Majority" of politically savvy conservative evangelicals, the Republican party has actively (sometimes slavishly) courted the evangelical vote. President Reagan was a darling of the movement; television celebrity Pat Robertson and political activist Gary Bauer each mounted significant campaigns of their own; George W. Bush took all the momentum in 2000 when, in response to a question likely designed to make him look stupid ("What political philosopher do you most admire?"), he responded "Christ, because he changed my heart." Baptist minister and former governor Mike Huckabee put up a surprising fight for the 2008 nomination, and fellow evangelical and governor Sarah Palin galvanized voters and has changed multiple elections since her pick as John McCain's running mate.

This year, however, conservative evangelicals seem to be at a loss. The professing evangelicals in the field (including Texas governor Rick Perry and Minnesota representative Michelle Bachmann) performed poorly and dropped out early. Two Mormon candidates (including powerhouse Mitt Romney) have forced awkward statements from evangelicals either coldly rejecting him as part of "a cult" or granting him religious bona fides that papered over more than a century of evangelical suspicion. National evangelical leaders rallied around former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum as their candidate thanks to his ideological purity, but Santorum got no bump in the polls. Meanwhile South Carolina evangelicals (according to exit polls) threw their support to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Both Santorum and Gingrich are Roman Catholic, another faith tradition with a complicated relationship to evangelicalism. And then there are the lots and lots of Obama evangelicals who are waiting till the fall to get in the mix. There is, effectively, no evangelical consensus.

I find that striking. Evangelicals have long trumpeted their lack of power; persecution and marginalization are key themes in an evangelical mystique. We like to think of ourselves as inheritors of the mantle of the martyrs and keepers of a pure, countercultural Christian trust that regularly leaves us on the outs with the powers that be. And yet that's been largely a myth; evangelicals have been in many ways kingmakers in American politics for decades now.

Suddenly, that's no longer the case. Part of the reason, I'm convinced, is the bifurcation of the evangelical movement into two camps: the movement of the mind and the movement of the heart.

The evangelical brain--the folks who prioritize worldview and the principles and values that flow out of it--fall in line behind Rick Santorum. Santorum wrote the foreword to a book my evangelical employer published, a profile of the figurehead of the Intelligent Design movement, which challenges the hegemony of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Santorum's rhetoric (race-baiting comments notwithstanding) is integrationist, making the case that the origins of the universe, along with tax policy and foreign policy and gay marriage and abortion and gun rights and everything else, all flow from a common center. Faith informs every idea, for the Santorum crowd that includes Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. Santorum is purpose-driven; he answers the classic evangelical question "How then shall we live?" He gets the vote of the evangelical mind.

Newt Gingrich also makes a case from ideology. He calls himself a historian and lays claim to the title of Republican Party intellectual. But his case for the candidacy isn't one based on the brain; it's based on the heart.

No one talks about Ronald Reagan more than Newt, evoking for nostalgic evangelicals a time when the Moral Majority and its worldview orientation was in its cultural and political ascendancy. His rhetoric suggests an ideological divide that reinforces the martyrdom mystique; Newt can't wait to debate President Obama and chase his Saul Alinsky-loving, food-stamp-doling, Israel-hating booty out of office so we can get back to family values. Meanwhile, Newt's personal history has been filtered through the lens of life-change: his two failed marriages, based on his adulterous relationships, are part of a past he's repented of; his personal failings turned him to a ruthless personal inventory and an encounter with God; his life now is one of classic goodiness--he's a loving husband, father and grandfather who wants to serve his country and restore our exceptionalism by bringing us back to our roots. Newt alone among the Republican candidates owns the conversion story, and evangelicals eat that sort of thing up. While Santorum won the evangelical mind, Newt has won the heart.

At least that's my take on it. I'm a bit too feverish to fully trust my conclusions, so I welcome your feedback and critique. But I do expect that if Gingrich wins the Republican nomination, there will be a battle in the fall, alongside the ideological arguments, between Gingrich and Obama (who has his own conversion story to point people to) to prove which is the better master of the evangelical language and mystique, and so which candidate will win the heart and the vote of evangelicals--and, ultimately, whether that win will make any difference.

Friday, January 20, 2012

On Writing, Part Two of Two

When I was a kid, there was a candy bar (I forget the name) whose ad campaign was a jingle that went "________: It's too good for kids! _______ is made for grownups!" That (besides the "too good" part) is what I determined to be the case about a recent presentation I was giving. In the moment I looked at my notes on why we write and how we write better, and then looked at my audience of third-graders. I decided that they would pelt me with crayons if I shared what I had prepared, so I ditched the notes and just made conversation.

Their gain is your loss; instead of subjecting them to my random thoughts, I'm posting them here. This is the second and final post. I should note that the teacher's primary goal was to get the kids to "capitalize the first word in a sentence." So, this might sound a bit basic at points. But basic isn't bad; it is, in fact, foundational.

***

How we become good writers
First off, notice what you like when you read. If you read a story or a book that you just love, tell people you love it, and tell them why you love it. And then read it again, but this time pay attention to why you love it. You really like a particular character: Why? What did the writer do to help you connect so strongly to that character? You have a clear mental picture of a place: Why? How did the language and structure of what’s written help you imagine the place so effectively? You have a crystal-clear understanding of a thing or an idea—how a car works, for example, or why RBIs are important in baseball. Find examples in what you read that really connected the dots for you.

The first step in becoming a good writer is figuring out what good writing is, which involves paying close attention to the tricks and habits of the writers you really like. Every writer is different; sports writers write differently and use different tricks than novelists or poets. But every writer has access to the same toolkit. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a very different kind of fantasy story than J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone; both of them are good because the authors do what they do uniquely well, but also because they mastered the mechanics of good writing that are common to all writers.

So, as boring as it might seem, it’s worth really practicing the basics in your toolkit. Take spelling seriously; when you’re texting, take the time to make sure you spelled everything correctly. It’ll slow you down, but good writing is generally slow. While you’re taking spelling seriously, you’ll unconsciously write more seriously, more compellingly, both because the things you’ve written seem worth the time it took to spell right but also because you’ve slowed yourself down and thought through each word. E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and a variety of other classic stories, told his writing students, “Let every word tell.” By that he meant that, when you write (or more to the point, when you revise), make sure that every word on the page is there for a reason. Paying attention to spelling is one way of training your mind to do that.

So is playing by the rules of grammar. Capitalize the first word of every sentence because it’s a new sentence, and that’s what you do. Check in every once in a while on blogs like The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks or Apostrophe Abuse.com to see why bad punctuation makes writers look silly. Look for errors in stuff you read; show people—your teachers, your parents, your writer-friends—when you find errors, and reflect on why it’s so hard to find errors. The main reason is that good writers make the rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation instinctive so they can focus on making their writing style more unique, more compelling.

Last thing: If something is important enough for you to write about, it should also be enough for you to talk about and act on. If you’re passionate about an issue—say, famine in Africa or homelessness in Lombard—write about it, sure, but also do something about it: raise money, volunteer, write your senators and the president, that sort of thing. The most important thing for writers is to not get lost in their writing, not to make their writing something they do simply to amuse or otherwise indulge themselves, but to actually have an impact on their world. Commit yourself to that, and your writing will get better because you’ll care more about what you’re writing, and so will your reader, because you’ve shown them how to care.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On Writing, Part One of Two

Last week I had the opportunity to speak to a class of kids about writing and publishing. I'm a writer and editor, so I think about this stuff a lot, and I enjoy the opportunity to opine when it comes along. So I wrote up a bunch of notes and tromped on over there, only to realize immediately upon entering the classroom that what I had prepared was not going to play in a room full of third-graders. So I improvised, and we (or I, I should say; ask teacher Tony Melton what the kids thought) had a good time.

I still liked what I had put together, though, and I'm still suffering a fair bit of blogger's block for the new year. So here's the first of two posts on why we write, how we write, and how we get better at it.

***

Why we write
We write because something about what language does compels us. We notice the impact of sentences, of paragraphs, of stories, on the people around us and on ourselves. We notice that we think better about an idea when we can look at it on screen or on paper. We notice that much of what we know about the universe, about the past, about ourselves, about our neighbors, we know because we read it, which means that someone wrote it. We write because we can and because we should.

Sit down in a quiet, calm place and write down what comes to mind. Then read what came to mind and think about it some more and write what you find yourself thinking about. Maybe you’re thinking about a person—a friend or your mom or the president. The more you write about that person, the fuller a picture you gain for yourself of that person. That sort of thing.

What we write
We write what we know or want to know, what we see or wish we saw, what we dreamt or what gave us nightmares. We write about people who inspire us, places that impress us, things that intrigue us. We write about things we feel special connection to and things that we think we can explain or illuminate in ways that other people can’t. If you’re a fan of baseball, write about baseball.

If you have a favorite singer, write about that singer’s music or imagine what life as a professional singer might be like.

How we write
There’s writing, and then there’s revising. Writing is what we do when we first sit down. Revising is what we do once we’ve finished writing and want to make our writing better. No writing is what it could be without committing to revising.

As you review what you’ve written, ask yourself questions: What more would I like to know about this person, place or thing? What details have I left out that are important to what I’m writing about? What will make this story more interesting? More realistic? Funnier? What more do I need to know about this subject to do justice to it?

How we publish
Publishing is a tricky business. It takes far more than one person to get something published. There’s the writer, of course, but there’s also the editor—the person who reads what the writer has written and helps him or her revise. There’s the person who imagines what the text should look like on the page, and if there are pictures that should go alongside it, what those pictures should look like. There’s the person who manages the technology so people can read what’s written—whether in print or on the computer. There’s the people who let the world know that this new thing is out there and should be read, and the people who get it from the box into their hands. The writer has a responsibility to all those people to give them something good to work with.

Why we read
We read because a writer has captured our imagination. We read because someone has convinced us we need to know more about something. We read because we’re bored or because the TV’s on the fritz. We read because it’s one of those things that human beings have discovered can make us happy and make our lives better. We read, generally, as an act of faith that keeps getting rewarded with a good experience. And we write because we’ve seen the power in writing by what we’ve read.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Time Is Always Ripe to Do Right: On the Commemoration of Martin Luther King Day

Every year on Martin Luther King Day I read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” addressed to white clergy throughout the United States who were advising against, calling for a scaling back of, or otherwise subverting Dr. King’s efforts at securing fuller equality and dignity for Southern blacks. White clergy were, by and large, reluctant to see the racial tensions of the country further charged. As such, they were not the champions of the country’s ongoing renewal but instead champions of preserving the status quo and curtailing tension.

Tension gets a bad rap. Tension is a social sin—it certainly was in the minds of those white clergy who failed King’s hopes and tacitly (or even outright) supported King’s opponents. Tension has been, arguably, the chief concern of every religious resistance to religious renewal: the Sanhedrin’s concern for social upheaval inspired by Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry; the opponents of Moses in the desert who wanted to return to the stability and security of slavery in Egypt rather than continue the pursuit of God’s promised land; the state-sponsored church in Nazi Germany that kept the peace rather than confront the idolatrous and genocidal assertions of Hitler’s government. Tension isn’t bad; there are cases in fact where it is good. Read Dr. King’s letter to his fellow clergy with that in mind, and you’ll never sit on your hands or accept an unjust status quo ever again.

***

I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. . . .

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." . . .

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. . . .

I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.

Friday, January 13, 2012

We Could Be Heroes, Part Three of Three

Songwriter Leonard Cohen had a moment of pure insight in his song “Anthem”: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” The early church was full of cracks, and those cracks sometimes really hurt and sometimes made life tough. But through those cracks bled the wisdom of God, the power of God, the light of the world.

I want you to imagine this scene with me. It’s from the second chapter of the Book of Acts, the story that continues the Gospel of Luke after the resurrection of Jesus. A room full of powerless, broken, marginalized, insecure people, still processing the death, resurrection and subsequent disappearance of the One who brought them all together.

Suddenly each of them was touched with a tongue of fire from heaven and they all started “declaring the wonders of God” in languages that they shouldn’t know, in the hearing of a large crowd of people who knew all those languages. It was remarkable, and everyone was blown away by it.

Peter the apostle stood up to explain what was going on—that God had done something miraculous not only through the Holy Spirit that day but through the incarnation of Jesus the Son of God. This Jesus had just been killed at the hands of powerful people like the governor of Jerusalem and the temple authorities, but with the consent of the ordinary, everyday people lining the streets of the city. The realization in that moment among thousands of ordinary, everyday people that they were complicit in the execution of God was remarkable, and everyone was blown away by it.

Three thousand people in one day accepted the gift of salvation from Jesus through the preaching of Peter and became Christians. It was remarkable, and we are legitimately blown away by it.

But now I want you to imagine the next day, and the next, and the next.

Thousands of ordinary, everyday people, whom the apostle Paul would eventually describe as powerless, broken, marginalized, foolish. They didn’t convert to Christianity and storm the temple or the governor’s palace and take over the joint. They remained on the margins; they remained weak. They were stuck with each other, trying to make sense of each other and the shared experience of the salvation of Jesus and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

This is how they did that, reading from Acts 2:42-47:

"They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."

Listening to teaching about Jesus, eating together, praying together. Sharing their stuff and getting together regularly. These are not especially heroic acts. But these acts, practiced regularly and even daily, developed a culture that sustained and grew the church and made it into the soul-shaping force it is today. It was in the midst of this culture of faithfulness that the weak displayed the strength of God, that the foolish displayed the wisdom of God, that the powerless and marginalized showed the superiority of God’s vision for the world over that of the people who hold power so poorly and oppress people so casually. It was in this way that the church grew until it was undeniable and unavoidable, to the point when the religious authorities tried to break it up and the Roman government tried to destroy it and eventually gave in to it. By giving themselves to God and to one another in these small, everyday ways, the people of God changed the world. By being a new kind of normal, the people of God became heroes.

In one day, in the wake of one remarkable act of God, three thousand people came to Jesus. But moments like that are necessarily rare. The more common experience is this day to day working out of who we are and what God has in mind for us—the daily wrestling with our inherent weaknesses, the cracks in us and in the uneasy fellowship we discover with each other. The vocation of the church—you, me, all of us—is to be ready for those remarkable days like the day of Pentecost, to be sure. But it’s also to develop a culture that contends together with our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, our limitations, and yet continues to take on the heroic task of introducing the world to Jesus, of letting the light of Jesus shine through to a dark world, of sharing ourselves with one another and so introducing to the world a way of living in the strength of the God who created us, who saves us, who loves us and works for our good.

Like these early followers of Jesus, we will often feel inadequate. But like them, when we submit ourselves with all our fears and inadequacies to God, when we subject ourselves to the culture together that God has called us to, we too could be heroes.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

We Could Be Heroes, Part Two of Three

The second of three posts from a talk I gave recently about the spirituality of superheroes.

***

What’s really interesting about superheroes—what keeps people like me coming back again and again to read their exploits—isn’t their powers. It’s their weaknesses.

Don’t believe me? Here we go: Superman is undefeatable; any fight is weighted inevitably in Superman’s favor. Add kryptonite, though, and suddenly there’s a chance that Superman will lose and the villain will win. Thor is a god; the only way you beat a god is when the god gets all caught up in his godliness, gets cocky and makes a mistake. That’s what happened in the movie Thor; that’s what happened to the angel Lucifer who was close to God but fell to earth; that’s what happened to the human race when people made in God’s image chose to defy God in order to be more like God.

The reason weakness is more interesting than power is because while only some people have special gifts, all of us (including the powerful) have weaknesses and struggles that we have to contend with. It’s the struggle that interests us, because while we can’t fly or turn invisible or shoot fire from our eyes—we can struggle, and we gain hope and insight into our own struggles through the experience of others.

Weakness is also more interesting than power because of how different weaknesses work with each other. Here’s a quick list of the central flaw or vulnerability of each member of the Avengers:

• Tony Stark is an alcoholic who is alive only thanks to his artificial heart, which happens to also be the engine of his Iron Man armor.
• Thor is from another world, where he enjoys the deference and worship of everyone around him, which gives him a sense of entitlement and superiority wherever he goes.
• The Hulk is alone in the world thanks to his uncontrollable rage.
• The Black Widow is aloof and detached, unable to trust anyone thanks to her childhood experience and her work as a spy.
• Hawkeye, a sharp-shooting archer, is a reformed criminal with an inferiority complex.
• Captain America is a product of a bygone era with different rules about how people relate to one another, different morals and different expectations of their heroes.

Imagine a room full of these alpha dogs, each feeling just a little bit threatened by the others, each trying to make sense of a world in which they don’t feel quite at home, each trying to figure out why they were given these special gifts, this chance at a special life. It actually sounds a little bit like high school.

It also, if you think about it, sounds a little bit like the early church. In the days after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven, the disciples were left to think about what they were and what they were going to do for the rest of their lives. They were known for bickering with each other, for jockeying for position among themselves, for trying to get Jesus to elevate them over the rest.

They were, for the record, not all that special. None of them was particularly educated, none of them held any positions of power, none of them had much of a future laid out for them. Here’s what the apostle Paul, a relative latecomer to the followers of Jesus, wrote to the Corinthian Church.

"Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him." (1 Cor 1:26-29)

This is how Paul perceived the early church. They were generally thought to be unwise, uninfluential, common, weak, despised, lowly. Nothing to brag about. This is, in fact, how many people see people of faith today. It is, in fact, how many of us perceive ourselves. And the fact is, Paul was speaking the truth. The early church was populated with the powerless, the broken, the marginalized. From the first of the apostles to the least of these, they had nothing going for them. All they had was this world-altering experience with the Son of God and each other.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

We Could Be Heroes, Part One of Three

Last weekend I spoke to the youth group at Community Fellowship Church in DuPage County, Illinois, for the first installment of a series on superheroes. It was loads of fun. Since I have no ideas for new posts here at Loud Time, I thought I'd post my comments here, in three parts.

***

I already know, with absolute confidence, my favorite film of 2012. I’ve been waiting for this movie my entire life: The Avengers.

The buzz has been building on the Avengers movie since 2009, when long after the closing credits of Iron Man started rolling, the black screen was gradually replaced by the scene of Tony Stark’s living room. The last time we saw this living room he had literally had his heart ripped out by his best friend, so this is sort of ominous. Stark knows someone’s there but he doesn’t know who, so his defenses are up. The camera gradually reveals Samuel L. Jackson, wearing a telltale eyepatch that signals to geeky fanboys like me that we’ve just been introduced to the iconic soldier Nick Fury, agent of Shield. Fury calmly introduces himself to Stark and gradually lays out an invitation, to him, to us, to join him in “a much larger universe.”

I, quite honestly, almost wet my pants. I’ve been a fan of the Avengers since I was about eleven, when I walked into a 7-11 or something and saw a comic book stand with Avengers #221 on it. I bought that issue and I’ve since bought hundreds more, the oldest--#7— dating back to 1964. For my anniversary at work my boss gave me a CD-ROM with the text and graphics of forty years’ worth of Avengers comics. So, yeah, I’m a fan.

This year they’re finally releasing the movie they’ve been building up to for the last few years, with the teaser in Iron Man followed a few months later by a teaser they added at the last minute to The Incredible Hulk: Tony Stark sidles up to a failed general and suggests that the Avengers can help him track down the Hulk.

The next year brought us Iron Man 2, which introduced the Black Widow as a character and teased us with a shot of Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor, God of Thunder. Then came 2011, when Thor came to theaters and introduced Hawkeye, Thor’s evil brother Loki, and the Cosmic Cube, a reality-altering device of devastating energy, or something like that. The Cube is central to the plot of Captain America: The First Avenger, which came out a few months after Thor and rounded out the cast of The Avengers movie. It even, gasp, includes an Avengers preview.

I’m freaking out, honestly. This past summer my wife and I went to Cleveland, Ohio, which was sort of a depressingly cheap and boring vacation until I learned that The Avengers was filming down the street. We stood on that street corner for over an hour waiting for something to blow up, some hammer or laser beam or shield or something to whiz by. I learned two things that day:

__One, my wife is a saint.
__Two, I haven’t lost my obsession with the Avengers.

The Avengers have always excited me, but in the beginning they were really just a commercial device, drummed up in the imagination of a relatively young comic book publisher trying to make some money. Marvel Comics had observed the success of their rival DC Comics’ new supergroup the Justice League, featuring cultural icons Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and others. Marvel wanted some of that super-money, but being a new publisher they didn’t have the cultural traction that DC had. They made up a team anyway, featuring the best they could do at the time: the Hulk, Thor, Iron-Man, the Wasp, and . . . Ant-Man. That’s right: one of their greatest hopes was a guy with the powers of an ant. A few issues later they recovered Captain America from a block of ice in the arctic circle, where he’d been abandoned in the mid 1940s after World War II ended and war fatigue made him decidedly less popular among the comic book buying public. The 1960s-era Marvel Comics thawed Captain America out and made him an Avenger. They had their super-group: a raging beast, a fallen god, a long-lost war hero, an iron man, an ant man and a wasp. Somehow it worked.

Superpowers, quite honestly, are a dime a dozen. Pick a thing and add “Man” or “Woman” to it, and you’re 90 percent there. “Plastic Man”: a guy who can stretch like plastic. “Cat Woman”: a woman who acts like a cat. “Invisible Girl”: a girl who turns invisible. It’s easy to the point of pointlessness. What’s really interesting about superheroes—what keeps people like me coming back again and again to read their exploits—isn’t their powers. It’s their weaknesses.