Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Joy to the World

No more let sin or sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground.

He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

A blessed Christmas to all my Loud Time friends.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Happy Anniversary 2 Me

I've now been blogging at Loud Time for two years. O what fun it is . . .

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Deck the Halls with Faux Endorsements

I wouldn't presume at this point in the presidential campaign to know for certain who I think would be best to lead our country for the next four years. But I've been seeing so much of these people on the news lately that it seems to be high time that I take what little I know of the candidates and make a preliminary endorsement for Barack Obama. {I'm still working on my endorsement for the Republican party.)

As you'll see below, this is about as uninformed an endorsement as one can manage, and really I must confess my reason for endorsing Barack, beyond his general appeal both as a champion of fresh thinking in Washington and as a candidate who recalls for me the idealistic innocence of early 1960s political activism: I have an idea for a theme song for him, and I hope by endorsing his candidacy I can convince him to run with my theme song.

Every candidate since 1992, when Bill Clinton wouldn't shut up about "thinking about tomorrow," has needed a theme song, whether they knew it or not. In some cases they've needed a whole theme mix-tape; one could argue that President Bush's i-Pod has been exposed to greater scrutiny than his department of defense. Hillary Clinton made a big deal out of her choice of theme song earlier this year, and I can't for the life of me remember what it was. That's OK, though, because the i-Pod has changed how we think about music. In the era of shuffle, a candidate needs to keep people guessing about what song best characterizes his or her campaign. It needs to be creative, poignant, memorizable and yet forgettable.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what I offer Senator Obama in his quest for the White House: an eminently forgettable yet easily memorizable song for the moment, to keep everyone's thoughts on him even as we prepare our hearts for Christmas. You'll sing this song to the tune of "The Little Drummer Boy." I hope it enhances your holiday experience even as it makes you more politically conscious.

"Come," they told me (Barack Obama)
"Our future president" (Barack Obama)
As tall as the Sears Tower (Barack Obama)
He wants to fight the power (Barack Obama, 'rack Obama, 'rack Obama)
Shall I vote for him (Barack Obama) when he runs?

His professorial tone (Barack Obama)
His sixties retro suits (Barack Obama)
From Oprah feeling love (Barack Obama)
He towers all above (Barack Obama, 'rack Obama, 'rack Obama)
Shall we vote for him (Barack Obama) when he runs?

Sure, he's far too young (Barack Obama)
And dangerously thin (Barack Obama)
A junior senator (Barack Obama)
Campaigned when he was four (Barack Obama, 'rack Obama, 'rack Obama)
Still, I'd vote for him (Barack Obama) when he runs.

His veiled comparisons (Barack Obama)
To Martin Luther King (Barack Obama)
He's more like JFK (Barack Obama)
With fewer sandwiches (Barack Obama, 'rack Obama, 'rack Obama)
Sure, I'll vote for him (Barack Obama) when he runs.

PS: I'm still undecided as far as the Republicans go, but here's where I'm leaning:

Huckabee, Huckabee, Huckabee Ole!
Oh what fun it is to say the president's last name--Hey!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Steady Dismantling of My Private Mythology, Part One

I've been reading a lot by Thomas Merton lately, mostly to inform my writing in Deliver Us from Me-Ville. In the process I've gotten firsthand exposure to the vast expanse between his intellect and mine, his depth of spirit and mine. It's enough to give a guy a complex.

In other news--related only by the cognitive stretch I'm about to make, so pay attention--yesterday a coworker of mine delivered to me, with compliments from my publisher (read here and here for my neuroses concerning just such a meeting), a mockup of Me-Ville so I could see how the over will ultimately look on a book. It's exciting and wildly distracting; I keep picking it up and looking at it, weighing it, scrutinizing it, flipping through it. That's where the trouble starts, because in flipping through it I see that beyond the cover lies nothing--blank pages, substancelessness.

That's my fear, that ultimately what I write will amount to nothing more than the taking up of shelf space and the killing of trees. I console myself in those moments of self-doubt or self-awareness--still figuring out which is closer to the mark--with the thought that through what I've written some people will be exposed to some truly great thinking, some truly deep intuition about where our selves lie in relation to the Truth.

So today I thought I'd give you a little gift by quoting Merton from his New Seeds of Contemplation. Here he is being simutaneously witty and refreshingly jaded, on the one hand, and profound and insightful into the paradoxical human need for encounter with God and right relations with fellow humanity, and the sin that so easily entangles:

The contemplative life certainly does not demand a self-righteous contempt for the habits and diversions of ordinary people. But nevertheless, no man who seeks liberation and light in solitude, no man who seeks spiritual freedom, can afford to yield passively to all the appeals of a society of salesmen, advertisers and consumers. There is no doubt that life cannot be lived on a human level without certain legitimate pleasures. But to say that all the pleasures which offer themselves to us as necessities are now "legitimate" is quite another story. . . .

Just because he can buy one brand of whisky rather than another, this man deludes himself that he is making a choice; but the fact is that he is a devout servant of a tyrannical ritual. He must reverently buy the bottle, take it home, unwrap it, pour it out for his friends, watch TV, "feel good," talk his silly uninhibited head off, get angry, shout, fight and go to bed in disgust with himself and the world. This becomes a kind of religious compulsion without which he cannot convince himself that he is really alive, really "fulfilling his personality." He is not "sinning" but simply makes an ass of himself, deluding himself that he is real when his compulsions have reduced him to a shadow of a genuine person.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Overheard at Lunch

Ah, youth. I heard one eight-year-old (?) kid explaining one of the great mysteries of childhood to another eight-year-old (?) kid today. It's a bittersweet moment, I suppose, when you're suddenly pulled from the naive innocence of early childhood into a more worldly wise, perhaps less enchanted age. There are new enchantments yet to be discovered, of course, but for this one eight-year-old (?), today may have marked the end of his innocence.

"Have you ever heard of an atomic wedgie? They do it to dorks at camp . . ."

Yes, son, I'm afraid they do . . .

Monday, November 26, 2007

Holy Idiot!

Very Short List turned me on to this online presentation of Dostoyevski's classic Crime and Punishment, refashioned as a 1950s-era Batman comic. It's immediately funny despite its somber subject matter and compelling despite its inherent silliness. Check it out here.

Batman comics and Russian novelists--two great tastes that go great together.

Ode to Endorsements

Matt Rogers, co-pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship in Blacksburg, Virginia, and author of two forthcoming books: When Answers Aren't Enough (Zondervan, April 08) and Losing God (IVP, October 08), was kind enough to offer the following endorsement of my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville (David C. Cook, June 08):

I would like to say our obsessively self-oriented fame-seeking culture needs this book. (It does.) But more the point, I need it. Dave Zimmerman draws the finest distinction I´ve read between a healthy sense of significance and insidious self-absorption.

I've had the pleasure of editing Matt's book Losing God and, in the process, getting to know him. Great guy with a really sensitive spirit. Both his books are going to be great.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

An Open Letter to Laffy Taffy™

Dear Mr. Wonka:
I have long admired the taste and texture of Laffy Taffy™. Having gone to school not far from one of your manufacturing plants, I was pleased for four years to have ready access to these chewy, gooey delights. The jokes on the wrappers were, of course, a happy bonus. Who could not smile reading, on the outside of the wrapper, “What do you say when the Statue of Liberty sneezes?” and then, on the inside of the wrapper, “God bless America!”

Imagine my disappointment, my confusion, when I eagerly opened a bag of Halloween edition Laffy Taffy™ and found the following joke:

Q: What happens to a pumpkin when it becomes rotten?
A: It turns into a green Jack-o-Lantern.

What?!? I like to think I have a good sense of humor, and I have devoted more time to this joke than could be called productive, and I must judge that in this instance you were heavy on the taffy, light on the laffy.

Oh, the opportunities you missed! Why not the following?

Q: What happens when a Jack-o-Lantern becomes rotten?
A: It turns into a punk-kin!


Q: What do you call a pumpkin that becomes rotten?
A: A jackal-lantern!

I admit, neither of these jokes represents my best work, but at least there’s nuance, plays on words, exclamation points. I might have kept silent about my frustration but my next piece of candy bore the following joke (and I emphasize the word bore):

Q: Why did they carve a big mouth into the pumpkin?
A: So he could scream and howl!

Again, what?!? I can’t work with that one at all!! At least it had an exclamation point, but I’ll be frank: this joke screams and howls an indictment against your joke editing department. I can only hope that you will audit your humor more carefully before the next candy-giving event on my calendar. I would hate to have my taffy-chewing experience sullied by something like the following:

Q: What did the Easter Bunny say to the Paschal Lamb?
A: Have a piece of chocolate!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Early Endorsements

Very nice comments from two very cool people about the forthcoming book, Deliver Us from Me-Ville. Don Everts, who's written four-soon-to-be-nine books and is the unofficial posterboy for Likewise books, read the draft and had this to say:

Selfishness has always been subtle and insidious. But Dave Zimmerman, with his keen eye on our culture, on scripture, and even (humorously) on himself, brings selfishness more into the light of day. Deliver Us From Me-Ville, with its wit and brutal honesty, helps me see selfishness as the ugly thing that it is and provides practical steps I can take away from its subtle, far-reaching clutches.
--Don Everts, author of Jesus with Dirty Feet, The Smell of Sin and God in the Flesh

Sean Gladding, copastor of Mercy Street in Houston, Texas, and one of the most delightful people I've ever met, wrote the following endorsement:

With his characteristic wit, Dave Zimmerman knocks on the front door of our comfortable home in Me-Ville. Before we know it he’s sitting in our living room, drinking coffee with us and gently – but insistently – inviting us to consider a move to a new home in the City of God.
--Sean Gladding, Co-pastor of Mercy Street, Houston, TX

They both, of course, had very incisive, insightful things to say about how the content can be improved, but these endorsement are nice pieces of eye candy until the book releases next June. So chew on that for a while, why don't you?

I am, by the way, working on discussion resources for the book, and presentations and retreats based on the book, so if you're looking for special content for some venue next year, let me know. I'd love to come meet your community.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Church Is A . . .

My wife has just joined the staff of our church, which means she now occasionally needs to use the church's tax-exemption number. Like today, for example, when she had to buy some supplies for the office. No big deal; the cashier simply enters the number, assigns the appropriate category and completes the transaction.

The question, however, of which category the purchase falls under is not so clear. Is the church a government agency, or is it a charity?

It struck me as a pretty simple question, actually, but it completely stymied our cashier, which I suspect offers a clue into the church's reputation in the broader culture. "It should be government, right? Because the church is a government agency."

"No, it should be charity, because the church is a charitable organization."

Any self-respecting churchgoing evangelical, such as myself, knows down to the bones that the church is most definitely not a government agency. The government, in fact, is out to get us--stripping away our God-given right to tax-free purchases and scheduling our children's park-district sporting events during our times of worship--all of which complicate our divine mandate to do charitable things like get together and eat donuts while we complain about taxes.

An outsider to the church, on the other hand--who has not been blessed with a parochial education that explains how the government has persecuted the American church and how the church has persevered in its charitable work of televangelism and lock-ins--might be inclined to perceive the church as a government agency, since every time a representative of the church is on TV he or she is telling people what to do and how to do it.

I should mention at this point that the cashier was a lovely young girl, showing no animosity whatsoever toward my wife for daring to work for such an oppressive organization as a church. No, I think she'd just never encountered the question of what a church is, and went with her gut.

I've started reading the book Unchristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, which reports on a broad survey of non-Christians ages 16 to 29. I'm not too far into it, but what I've read thus far suggests that people see the church doing much more governing than charity work. I'm not sure what to do with that information--maybe it comes through in later chapters--but generating more press releases trumpeting the charity work our church is doing doesn't smell like the answer. It smells like something, that's for sure, but it doesn't smell like the answer.

Any thoughts? Read the book; so far it's interesting, and I suspect I'll post more about it before I'm done . . .

Friday, November 02, 2007

When We Kiss, Oooh, Fire

Apparently, Bruce Springsteen recognizes a good performance opportunity when he sees it. From Stereogum:

Remember when you first heard "Keep The Car Running" and thought, "That's the best Bruce Springsteen song not written by Bruce Springsteen"? Apparently so did the Boss!

Springsteen brought two members of Arcade Fire on stage in Ontario and performed their song together with the E-Street Band. As I heard it on the radio, "When Bruce Springsteen covers your song, you know it's good."

That's the song that did it for me with Neon Bible, and I wish they had led with that as a single rather than the more isolating "Black Mirror," because as I've suggested elsewhere, I'd like to see these guys take the mantle from performers like Springsteen and U2.

Download now: "Keep the Car Running" and "(Antichrist Television Blues)"

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Light Humor

In my experience, there's always room for a little more G. K. Chesterton. I may have posted this in the past, but I was reminded of the following passage from his book Heretics recently, after an intriguingly complex office-wide conversation at work. I submit it for your pleasure, with hopes that you'll all become Chestertonians like me. For a further taste, click on the Daily Dose of Chesterton in the sidebar links.

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Quote of the Day

My friends over at Think Christian very kindly linked over to a previous post here about self-promotion in Christian ministry. A comment there from REB is today's quote of the day:

"God isn’t going to bless vanity!"

Short and sweet. It preaches. Nicely done; it beats out the quote I was going to run with, from Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets: "Go sell crazy somewhere else."

I suppose the two are related . . .

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tripe for the Picking Apart

The hardest thing about writing a book--at least for me--is having other people read it. All my defense mechanisms kick in, including the pre-emptive self-effacement ("It sucks; I'm sorry I subjected people to this tripe"), the reactive self-defense ("What the &%$*%& do they know, anyway?") and the self-serving faux humility ("Oh, glad you enjoyed it; of course it's totally meaningless, in the same way that everything is ultimately meaningless--oh, I'm so spiritual and couth"). So far with Deliver Us from Me-Ville I've received a "bit-o-encouragement" from a guy whose book I'm editing (pretty delicate situation I've forced him into, isn't it?); he said it offers a good discussion of the distinction between significance and self-absorption (I'll have to reread it). A friend who is on the pastoral staff of a church on the east coast says she likes it a lot; "the authenticity and transparency is really going to resonate with people." A friend and unknowing mentor of mine sent me a quick e-mail letting me know that from his quick initial scan, the book looks decent. I should quickly aver that none of these folks has read the whole thing yet, so it's possible they haven't yet reached the really lame parts.

The big test of my depth of character is on the immediate horizon. Some friends are writing a full constructive critique of the manuscript as it is. These are folks well-heeled in the publishing industry, so they know what works and what doesn't, and they have little patience for mindless tripe. One of them e-mailed me today to let me know her critique is in the mail. I suddenly don't feel well.

My subject matter doesn't help. A potential alternate title for the book was Enough About Me. So far, that's not been my experience; I'm generally up for talking about myself, and writing a book makes for lots of polite conversation about yourself anyway, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

It strikes me that there's a paradox in the escape from superbia (another potential title, once upon a time): you think about yourself through to the other side, where you (hopefully) understand yourself in proper context. It's like getting over smoking by smoking till you throw up, but it's also like sitting down with God and saying "Search me and know my heart," and then really paying attention to what he has to say.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Why Joel Gives Blood

My friend Joel Scandrett (unlike me, he is well schooled in theology) wrote the following as a general invitation to me and my colleagues to take part in a blood drive at work. I can't give blood today, but maybe some of you can and would appreciate a brief theology of blood donation. I therefore gladly yield the floor to Joel Scandrett.


Giving blood is just about as "Christian" a thing to do as anything I can think of. We donate money, time, clothing, food and any number of other things to churches and charitable organizations--and all of those are extremely important. But when we give our own blood for the sake of another person's life--that is an act of giving of an entirely different and more profound sort.

When we give blood, we give of ourselves in a way that no other kind of giving does, with the possible exception of a mother bringing her baby into the world. But giving blood is like giving birth in the sense that we are giving life to another person. When we give blood, we give life.

When we give blood, we sacrifice something of our very selves for the sake of someone who is not capable of living by their own power. Yes, giving blood hurts--not a lot, but it hurts. And it costs us: it costs us time, sometimes money, and can take a temporary toll on our energy. But isn't that is the nature of sacrifice? It hurts and it costs us, but both the pain and price are for the sake of the other, and so are well worth it.

Finally (and this probably goes without saying) when we give blood, we imitate Jesus, who gave his blood for the world so that the world might have life, and who sacrificed himself for our sake, who could not have Life by our own strength. When we give blood, I believe we reflect in a small way Jesus' own act of self-giving for the sake of the world.

Is giving blood some kind of super-Christian thing to do? Absolutely not. And, of course, if physical reasons prevent us from giving, there's nothing to feel guilty about. But are there Christian reasons for pressing through our initial fear or dislike of the idea in order to give the gift of life to someone who desperately needs it?

I believe there are.

Joel Scandrett

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Come Together, Right Now: Exploit Me

Perhaps my fondness for the Beatles is slipping into dogmatic obsession, but I'm really bugged by the sloppy sublicensing their music is currently being subjected to. Adweek picks up on my ennui: first was the lame homonym substitution by Target of "Good Buy" for "Goodbye" that stripped the song "Hello, Goodbye" entirely of its poignancy; now comes a diaper ad that, pardon my french, craps all over the song that the Beatles considered important enough to invite all their friends to perform with them for a worldwide satellite broadcast: "All You Need Is . . ."--wait for it--"Luvs.(tm)"

Come on, people, now. This is the Beatles song that most explicitly articulates John Lennon's worldview; only "Imagine," perhaps, gets more straightforward. Someone gave Luvs(tm) the right to this travesty, and that someone ought to have his or her face rubbed in it.

Someday Tupac and U2 are going to have to endure this kind of sacrilege of their canon too. I'd like to see Bono, in fact, fight the power here: "The diaper industry stole this song from the Beatles; we're stealing it back."

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The 1960s: Two Cinematic Views

Last weekend I saw two movies (I don't have kids): Across the Universe and Hairspray. I was dying to see one and had been hoping to avoid the other (I'm married). It occurs to me now (I'm a little slow on the uptake) that both movies were musicals, both visually adventurous, and both were painting a particular picture of a bygone era. Both pictures, however, were startlingly different in their approach. I actually left the theaters liking the one I expected to dislike and being mildly disappointed in the one I'd been dying to see. Go figure.

Hairspray is, in a sense, no surprise. It was originally scripted in 1988 by John Waters, providing Ricki Lake with a breakout role nearly twenty years ago. This one features the perky and irrepressible Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad. The film takes place in Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1962, and is built around the Corny Collins Show, a local dance show featuring the "nicest kids in town," a nicely ironic musical number tells us to set the general tone of the film. Once a month is "Negro Day," when the normal cast (including host Corky) cede the stage to an all black dancing troupe. Tracy makes it her goal to (a) join the cast of the show because she loves to dance and (b) "make every day Negro Day" because she's a fundamentally decent human being. Two problems with her plan: (a) she's overweight and (b) the TV producer is a racist. Hilarity ensues.

Across the Universe is a history of the 1960s through the music of the Beatles and the lens of a handful of young people coming of age. It's like A Hard Day's Night meets Rent. Liverpoolian Jude (get it? "Hey Jude"--hah!) leaves England in search of the father he's never met, who happens to do maintenance work on the campus of Princeton University. Jude meets his dad but, more importantly, meets Max (get it? "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"--hah!) and, soon enough, Max's sister Lucy (get it? "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"--last one, I promise). Jude and Max leave Princeton behind to live in the city with sexy Sadie, Jo Jo, Prudence and a bevy of other young bohemians, and when Lucy's Army boyfriend dies, she joins them. Jude and Lucy fall in love, but they have different visions of how to change the world: Lucy says she wants a revolution, while Jude thinks nothing's gonna change his world. Romantic complexity ensues.

It struck me as I watched Across the Universe that there's not nearly as much idolatry of the 1960s these days as I experienced growing up. The culture, in many ways, has moved on to the 1970s--That 70s Show enjoyed a long run on network television and dominates the rerun schedule where I live, and Momma Mia's theatrical ode to ABBA debuted long before Across the Universe was even an idea. But perhaps we now have enough distance from the 1960s to see it as more than its reductions. Hairspray makes a legitimate claim on the early 60s with Tracy's spunky, Sally Fieldesque can-do-ism changing Baltimore for the better. Tracy's mother, Edna, historically played by a man in drag (first Divine and now John Travolta in an uneven performance), keeps the mood constantly light and airy, and the wonderfully innocent Christopher Walken, who is clueless to the romantic manipulations of a brilliantly vampish Michelle Pfeiffer, keeps the laughs coming with his joke shop and his mattress made of whoopie cushions. By 1962 the Civil Rights Movement was in full force, a young, spunky, Sally Fieldesque president and first lady were in the White House, the Beatles had (relatively) short hair and peppy, bouncy lyrics, and the 1960s were still a decade of possibility: a time when it made sense to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Now go get em, kids.

Flash forward to 1964, when the Beatles stepped into the cultural void left by the assassinated John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War dragged on, and the Civil Rights Movement started to weather internal strife and more forceful conflicts. Young people began experimenting with drugs and free love and political alternatives to the social order (T. V. Carpio's "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" is a must-download track), and the champions of the social order didn't like it. The collective patience of the culture wore thin, and the world headed for a crash. the cultural crash was given a soundtrack with Dana Fuch's rendition (as Sadie) of "Helter Skelter," Bono's unsatisfying "I Am the Walrus" and Joe Cocker's forced "Come Together," but the emotional breakdown that inevitably follows careless relational experimentation and uncivil war was accompanied by the jaded "I Want You/She's So Heavy" and "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," reinterpreted brilliantly by Joe Anderson as Max, and the less satisfying "Oh Darling" by Sadie and Martin Luther as an otherwise wonderful Jo Jo. Even the very funny Eddie Izzard kept the mood cynical and tired in his wildly creative "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," which I'm sad to say is not on the soundtrack.

Across the Universe ends on a hopeful note, with performances of "Don't Let Me Down" and "All You Need Is Love" evocative of the Beatles' rooftop performance of Let It Be, but it's worth noting that Let It Be was essentially a postmortem for the Beatles; by its release they had disbanded.

The thing is, both these pictures of the 1960s are wildly exaggerated, but both are essentially true. The decade started in wild, unfettered hope and ended in tired protest and rote experimentation. No wonder the 1970s were so lame; everybody was burned out from trying to change the world.

At least they tried, I guess. If you're looking for a fun, feel-good film, go for Hairspray. If you're looking for a more melancholy retrospective of a troubling time, get Across the Universe. But if you want to know the 1960s, you'll need to see them both.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Spam of the Day

Can't pass this one up:

i am here sitting in the internet caffe. Found your email and decided to write. I am 25 y.o.girl. I have a picture if you want. No need to reply here as this is not may email. Write me at abreanne681@medicalgloveonline.info

I don't think Breanne should be sending these very personal e-mails from work. I also hope her spelling is better in her official correspondence. I can't imagine she sells a lot of medical gloves with such an atrocious writing style. Then again, she's probably pretty, which I'm told covers a multitude of sins in sales.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


My forthcoming book now has a title--Deliver Us from Me-Ville, which I like very much--and a cover, which I like very much and will post here when I get a final JPG from my publisher, Cook Communications. Suddenly it all feels real to me, and I am beset with a real anxiety. All my neuroses (or at least more neuroses than are appropriate for one person to have) come into play in the production of a book.

I have performance anxiety: what if my editor, Andrea Christian, whom I respect and feel a great debt toward, hates the draft? What if she writes back and tells me that the draft is so bad that she can't edit it into publishable form and thus demands that I (a) start from scratch or (b) give back the advance money (which I've [c] already spent).

I have social anxiety: I'm asking friends and colleagues to review and potentially endorse the book. What if they don't like it? How will our relationship be affected? I tell stories from my own experience in the book; what if friends or family misinterpret my meaning in how I tell a story? How will our relationship be affected? And eventually, I hope, the book will be reviewed in various media outlets. What if they don't like it? Then the book (and, by extension, I) am publicly and broadly known as that guy who wrote that bad book.

I have ethical anxiety: Am I overstepping professional boundaries by contacting people I've met through my work to support a book I'm not even publishing through my employer? Am I coercing people who want to maintain a good working relationship with me? Is it really OK that I'm publishing with Cook instead of with InterVarsity Press, or have I transgressed some boundary of loyalty in the minds of my coworkers?

I have evangelical anxiety: I talk about Jesus in this book a lot. I mean a lot. Is that going to make people uncomfortable? Have I inadvertently confessed heresies I'm not even aware of? Have I taken a "holier-than-thou" posture that I don't even recognize? Is this book a fair representation of the faith I profess?

I could go on, but my heart rate is way up. And it hasn't slipped past me that in declaring myself an expert on narcissism, I am showing myself to be highly vulnerable to narcissistic tendencies.

The final title of this book was not the first title: the first title was Escape from Superbia, a play on some language from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together and a reference to one of the seven deadly sins recognized by the church from antiquity. Apparently, Latin words in English book titles don't fly, so we went with Me-Ville. The new title is meant to evoke the Lord's Prayer--not, as some people have mentioned, Dr. Seuss. I like the final title more and more as I reflect on it, because more and more I see how every word tells.

"Me-Ville," I suggest, is the culture we inhabit, a contention common to many social psychologists. We live in an age and a context where looking out for number one is a virtue, and we are regularly exhorted to be so virtuous.

"Us" is a reminder that all of us are individually and collectively shaped by this culture, and that despite the privatizing, isolationist tendencies of the age, we're all in this together.

"Deliver" evokes one of the great glories of God, who delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, only to set them on a long and complicated journey of self-discovery to a promised destination. He similarly delivered individuals and families and cities and ethnic groups from wrongs being done to them, and drew them out of the traps of self-serving narcissism that they invariably got themselves into. Most emphatically, God delivered the world from evil by virtue of the death and resurrection of his Son, who called people to follow him into their own journey of self-discovery toward a promised destination.

"From" is a preposition. You have to have it.

I end the book as I'll end this post, with a brief reflection on the Lord's Prayer. The two stanzas are held in tension with one another. The first is a self-forgetting paeon of praise to our Father in Heaven, whose name is hallowed and whose kingdom is forthcoming, whose will is unflinchingly good. The second is self-absorbed, concerned with mundane, daily needs, emotional well-being and an ultimate sense of security. It ends in a reminder of the journey that God has us on:

Lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

The later imposition of another phrase swings the pendulum back and bookends the prayer in the goodness and power of God:

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours
Now and forever.

I take solace in the words of that prayer, and my anxieties are eased--not fully, not even finally, but enough to remind myself that God is king even over my narcissistic, anxious self, and he delivers me, and he leads me, and he restores my soul. Not bad.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Buck Stops Here and Starts Again There

I stumbled across an article at Time Online today about the legacy of scandal that attends to preachers with media ministries. I always cringe when I hear of a new one, which means I cringe a lot, because they come pretty fast and furious.

The latest involves a woman whose celebrity is evolving with her life circumstance. She entered public ministry by repenting publicly of her promiscuous lifestyle, then went on the hunt for a good man to marry. Consequently, she became the new face of rediscovered modesty and chastity (don't ask me who the old face was). Now, after a whirlwind romance and marriage that has ended in divorce and allegations of violence, she has declared herself the new face of domestic violence. Send money and prayer requests now.

I cringe at such reports because I identify myself principally by my faith, and so do people like this woman. And so when such people make outlandish statements or claims--whether political, cultural, spiritual or personal--I have to somehow deal with it. They're like the cousin that makes everyone nervous because he's weird and he shares your last name. In fact, I happen to know a person who shares the exact name of someone discussed in the Time story; he lives on the opposite coast of the scandal du jour, and his ministry is profoundly different, but for a while at least whenever he introduces himself to a Time subscriber, he's going to get that look.

The article raises a particularly interesting question as it speculates why there is such a thing as celebrity church culture in the first place, and why it's so prone to scandal in the second. Here's a nice summary statement of the problem:

"Where else [but in celebrity religion] can you say that you were the church Jezebel," marvels Butler, "and then recast yourself as a pure, holy single woman living a godly life, then all of a sudden you get married in a big elaborate wedding to a bishop, with 40 bridesmaids and then go off and have a ministry with that husband and tell other church couples, 'This is how to love your husband because we got it right'? - and then your husband beats you up in the parking lot, and now you're an advocate for domestic violence?"

So, why is there such a thing as celebrity church culture in the first place? Why is it so prone to scandal?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How Raw Can You Get?

My new friend (as Facebook calculates time) Tabitha Plueddemann e-mailed me today with some thoughts about a writing project we've been discussing. In it she very creatively subdivided the literary quality of "raw." Before I share her continuum I'll give you a minute to define for yourself what "raw" means literarily.

Whenever you're ready . . .

OK. Time's up; pencils down. Here are the two subcategories Tabitha laid out for me:

* raw in the sense of a garden salad
* [raw] in the sense of a bloody shank of pork impaled on a hook and coated with flies

First of all, hilarious. Second of all, I find it interesting to think about raw in a countercultural sense. I've been conditioned, I think, to associate the term "raw" with the bloody-shank-of-pork end of Tabitha's continuum. I've also been conditioned to count "raw" as somehow "more true, more culturally resonant." The Zeitgeist, if I'm using that word properly, hovers somewhere over that end; as evidence I point to the return to TV of "Dexter," everybody's favorite, lovable serial killer. I'm told that the show "Prison Break" this season will take place in a third-world prison camp where inmates are groomed for violence and fed nothing but uncooked meat--"raw" in more than one sense.

But the ingredients of a typical salad are no less raw than the bacon you would never deign to eat, and you can make a decent meal of it. I'm reminded of the song of a few years back "Pretty Good Day," just a shiny happy song daring to be naively innocent in a harsh, jaded world--"raw" in its most countercultural sense.

So I'd be interested in hearing where people fall on this continuum when it comes to your consumption of culture. What qualifies a song or a story or a testimony as "raw"? What are you seeing that crosses a line "good" raw to either, on the one end, salacious spectacle or, on the other end, pollyanic naivete?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Dave Does Impressions

I suppose it’s laudable that a church would have a “director of first impressions”; it suggests that the church recognizes and bravely undertakes the uphill climb it faces as it pursues a redemptive relationship with an increasingly dubious culture. It strikes me as unusual, however, that this same director of first impressions would wait to respond to an e-mail until two weeks after it was sent.

In defense of the director, I will aver that that a church big enough to have a director of first impressions probably has to categorize a lot of e-mails week in and week out, and in one sense my e-mail was likely difficult to categorize. Not impossible to categorize, however, in that two weeks after the fact the director of first impressions rightly concluded that my e-mail should be forwarded to the office of the person I was requesting a meeting with in the first place. Something tells me not to hold my breath waiting for that meeting; I suspect this new office has more than one layer of bureaucracy for my e-mail to penetrate.

I can’t wait to hear from the director of second impressions.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Haloed in Anger

On September 11, 2001, I drove into work to the tune of "Silly Love Songs" by Paul McCartney and Wings. I was in a happy, playful mood. I soon wasn't. I remember clenching fists as our company gathered to pray. I remember our prayers being interrupted by the announcement that the second tower of the World Trade Center was collapsing. I remember being angry, and I remember later being consoled, if only slightly, by the words of the song "Cry Like an Angel" by Shawn Colvin. I printed those words cruciform on a sheet of paper and hung them on my bulletin board as a memorial, not far from the walnut shell I'd pocketed earlier that morning, found on the sidewalk as I enjoyed the morning, chewed by a squirrel into the shape of a peace sign. I don't think I can produce the words cruciform in this post; I'm not that skilled a blogger. But I thought I'd post the words nonetheless, with thanks to Shawn Colvin for giving me a voice and an outlet in the days that followed that day.

The streets of my town are not what they were.
They are haloed in anger, bitter and hurt.
And it's not so you'd notice, but it's a sinister thing
Like the wheels of ambition at the christening.

So I went out walking on the streets of the dead
With a chip on my shoulder and a voice in my head.
It said you have been brought here
Though you don't know what for.
Well the mystery train is coming right to your door.

And I hear you calling, you don't have to call so loud.
I see you falling and you don't have to walk so proud.
You can run all night, but we can take you where
You can cry like an angel. . . .

So look homeward baby; keep your eyes on the sky.
They will never forgive you, so don't ask them to try.
This is your party; I know it's not your ideal.
May we all find salvation in professions that heal. . . .

You can shout out an answer.
You can look like a fool.
You can call out to heaven.
We'll be listening to you.
You can sing Hallelujah!
You can fly like a bird.
You can cry like an angel when there are no words.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Humans and Other Apes

I heard a report on NPR today ("Ooh! He listens to NPR! He's sooo smarrrt!") that made me want to throw my poop at someone. The report was on research comparing the innate intelligence of human children to that of other primates, which is all well and good, but the reporter kept making reference to "humans and other apes." Now, maybe that kind of language is in vogue in scientific circles these days, but I'm not so far along in the evolutionary process that calling me an ape doesn't sound like an insult. I can accept the designation "primate," but "ape" is demeaning, I daresay dehumanizing.

The report indicates that human children showed no special advantage over chimps and orangutans when it came to mechanics and simple logic; chimps were at least as likely as the future leaders of our nation to be able to find a banana or do simple math. Where our prodigious progeny proved their evolutionary superiority, it turns out, was in their social intelligence--in their ability to figure out what the researcher was trying to show or tell them, and to turn that information to their advantage. Little kids were far more likely to learn from observing how to open a container and retreive the food inside, and they were much quicker to let the researcher know where food was hidden in the room once the expectation that the researcher would feed them was established. From this report I learned, among other things, what makes humans unique among the primates and, apparently, what makes kids today so fat.

The report went on to suggest that what sets apart humans from other primates more than anything is the ability to codify language, so that learning became socially cumulative rather than isolated and transitory. Once human beings learned how to communicate their wants and needs to each other, and to let each other in on the secrets they'd uncovered, and beyond that to archive that information for other human beings, the i-Phone was simply an inevitability.

There are some flaws in the research, of course. There were, to my knowledge, no nonhuman researchers, so the human children didn't have to do any inter-species translation work. The chimps and orangutans were at a shockingly obvious cultural disadvantage, and so the research is hopelessly biased, as far as I'm concerned. But it's an interesting premise nonetheless, and certainly smugly self-satisfying for a writer-editor such as myself: the ability to parse a sentence is an indication of higher social intelligence. We're kings of the jungle based on our command of language. Revenge of the nerds at last!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Abnormal Is the New Normal

Really, now, what's not to like about Molly Shannon? An entirely unique fixture on Saturday Night Live for years, she's had modest success in her leap to filmwork--mostly by putting her distinctness, on display in characters such as Catholic school misfit Mary Catherine Gallagher and the unapologetic fifty-year-old "sex symbol" Sally O'Malley, to death. She offsets her wild weirdness by being entirely endearing, so I cheered privately for her when she took on her first lead role in a film not related to her character work on SNL: The Year of the Dog, now on DVD. (Fair warning: I will spoil the plot again and again.)

One reviewer called Shannon's role in this movie "career-transforming," which is really appropriate, since her comedy here is deeply subtle and held in tension with a the very tender, fragile, nigh-on tragic story her character is experiencing. She plays a woman in her forties who's never married ("I never, you know I guess I never... that... that... that never happened. But I think some people just aren't as... you know... I don't know. It's like that, I guess.") or had children. She lives with her cute little dog Pencil, whom she dotes on like a child and confides in like a sibling. She is constantly framed in the movie alone, an observer to the lives of others, an oddity herself to be stared at. Her friends and family indulge her idiosyncratic relationship with the dog, but from her vantage point the quirkiness of suburban parenthood, the vanity of fledgling romance, the pointlessness of single-minded ambition, take on their own character of absurdity.

I was sucked in to the film from the outset. As a thirty-something nonparent with two cats, I get the sense of isolation that can creep up on you as you try to empathize with people whose lives have taken on a different character. I'm also well-attuned to the cultural presumption of pronatalism, a term I learned from my sociologist wife that suggests that American culture's normalizing of marriage and parenthood is a social construct that to one degree or another marginalizes single people and nonparents. I became a big fan of the term pronatalism when my friends started busting my chops about when I was going to have a kid, using lofty scriptural allusions such as "arrows in a quiver" to suggest that maybe, just maybe, by not bearing offspring I was sinning against the Lord.

So far, all my fellow "antinatalists" out there, so good. But the film takes a turn when Pencil dies, apparently after having gotten into some rat poison in the neighbor's garage. The insensitivity of Shannon's friends and family is damning; it becomes clear that they don't get her, that she'll go through this grief alone. She finds some sympathy in her neighbor's sentimental solidarity--his childhood dog died accidentally--but he loses his charm when he makes a move on her and it comes out that his dog died because he shot it accidentally while hunting for moose.

Shannon gets a call from the veterinarian's office inviting her to take a new dog, this one abandoned due to some behavioral problems and thus requiring special care. The veterinarian befriends Shannon and introduces her to a more radical animal-loving lifestyle, one that includes veganism (a diet that forgoes any food coming from animals, including milk) and activism (protests against harsh farming practices and such). This new lifestyle puts her more and more at odds with her friends and family, pushing her deeper and deeper into isolation. Suddenly, to the viewer, they seem a lot more normal, and Shannon seems to have come unhinged. She embezzles from her company to fund animal rescue and, when her new dog is put down by her friend the veterinarian after attacking and killing another dog, she frantically adopts nineteen dogs scheduled for euthanization and ultimately attacks her neighbor with a knife.

But wait--there's more. Shannon is nursed back to health and received back into her relationships, all of whom have become more sympathetic not only to her but to her love of animals. Her seemingly soulless boss even sneaks his new pet dog into the office to keep him company. But something has changed: this normal life Shannon has reverted to is no longer enough. She writes an eminently sane farewell letter to all her loved ones, and hits the road to live a new life fighting for animal rights.

My immediate reaction to this film was that I didn't like it. It was hard to keep up emotionally--hard to continually revisit my feelings toward individual characters and to stay supportive of Molly Shannon throughout. But the more I think of it, the more I think that this was the point: the film wants to play with the idea of what constitutes normal, to make the audacious suggestion that normal is what you make of it.

This is nothing new; a survey of contemporary film and television taken with a critical eye reveals that the rules are changing all over the place. Big Love renders as not only legitimate but plausible the notion of polygamy; Weeds moves the ethically dubious terrain of drug dealing from the inner-city street corner to the suburban soccer-mom minivan, and Californication makes a bed-hopping middle-aged lecher into a sympathetic postmodern hero. The film Year of the Dog was written and directed by the same person, Mike White (born the day before I was, incidentally) who wrote Jennifer Aniston's quietly complex film about infidelity, The Good Girl, so perhaps I should have anticipated that what constitutes normal in this film would be a matter of following the bouncing ball.

People of faith often wring their hands in light of this kind of reconfiguring of ethics, morals and worldview. But I want to suggest that it's not, as many assume, some demonic conspiracy to turn everything upside down but rather a good-faith effort to figure out what's true, noble and good in a world where the foundations have been effectively shaken. If one does not automatically grant the premise that God intended sex to be experienced within the confines of a covenant relationship, for example, or that marriage is intended to be a covenant between two and only two people, how in good faith does one determine what constitutes a meaningful relationship? How does one even define covenant? And if a person has entered into a worldview that is fundamentally at odds with the people he or she loves, the people that love him or her, how then shall he or she live? If everybody's looking for a happy ending but nobody's working off the same script, how will the story play out?

For Year of the Dog, the happy ending was for Molly Shannon to leave, to ride off into the sunset not with her brother or her celibate vegan ex-boyfriend or her naively romantic best friend but with a busful of strangers each concluding in isolation from one another that the best life is one spent on behalf of innocent animals victimized by people. I ended the DVD happy for Molly Shannon that she'd found her bliss, but sad that she'd lost so much life in the process.

One conviction that remains with me is certainly this: no happy ending is truly happy if it leaves you sitting alone on a bus.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Site of the Day: Christian Vision Project

I've made no secret of my man-crush on Andy Crouch, the director of the Christian Vision Project. That dude is as cool as he is smart, and he's really cool. I mention this because (a) I've historically neglected to link my site to the CVP site, an oversight I've now corrected (see the sidebar below); and (b) I've recently learned that the great DVD curriculum assembled by the CVP--Intersect | Culture--is now available for $25, which is half what I paid for my copy at last year's Catalyst Conference. (A couple weeks later I got a free copy, so it all works out. I heart CVP.) If you have some missionally minded, creatively inclined friends who enjoy hashing out what posture Christians ought to have toward the culture they perceive themselves as living in, you'd enjoy this. Buy it (or at least take a peek at it) here.

Monday, August 27, 2007

My wife and I are just back from vacation. In Las Vegas. I learned a bit about myself in the weeks leading up to our trip; we began to realize that we couldn't mention where we were headed without immediately offering some sort of caveat: "It was a special offer" or "We don't know what we'll do there, since we don't gamble." It became a spiritual discipline for us to simply say, when asked where we were going, "Vegas."

I came back from Vegas to a churchful of inquiries--"What did you do?" "How much did you lose?" From there I went back to work, where my evangelical colleagues asked me similar questions, complete with awkward hesitation, stern, disapproving looks and nudge-nudge-wink-wink presumptiveness. So I'm now inclined, rather than to immediately respond to such questions, to ask people what they think I did in Vegas. It'll be interesting to hear what people think of me.

So I'll start with you, gentle reader: What do you think I did in Vegas?

Friday, August 17, 2007

The One Who Saves Your Bacon Is Your Friend

Yesterday my car wouldn't start. I was stranded in the suburbs, alone at the pet food store with my misery. I was sweaty and cranky. And my car, in case I neglected to mention it, wouldn't start.

On such occasions I regret my general ignorance, for I had no clue whatsoever what might be causing my car to not start. I called my wife, who suggested I call her dad, who told me it was probably the battery.

Now what? I had a few options: my father-in-law was willing (bless his heart) to drive out to me to recharge my battery, but that would have been an hour-long round-trip for him. I could ask someone in the parking lot to give me some help; they were much closer than my father-in-law. But I didn't know them, and they might think I was a serial killer or something, and I can't have that.

So I compromised and called my friend Bill. (I called him that, incidentally, because that's his name.) Bill was nearer by, at home practicing his guitar while he waited for dinner to cook, and he suspected I had a bad alternator, not a bad battery, but he nevertheless dropped everything (except the guitar) and came to my rescue. Bill, yesterday, saved my bacon.

I wish I felt free to ask my anonymous neighbors at the pet food store to help me when I'm in need. I wish I lived in a world where people didn't need to fear serial killers. But this is the world I live in, and in the world I live in, the one who saves your bacon is your friend.

Thanks Bill. You saved my bacon, my friend.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Le Roi Est Mort; Vive le Roi

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. Two days from now, serendipitously, I'll be in Las Vegas to give proper tribute.

Elvis loomed large over my childhood, right up there with Jimmy Carter and Pope John Paul II. He defined cool for me till I was old enough to mock his bloated later years; by that time I was in college, where I and some friends took every opportunity to tear apart the mythology and mysticism of the King of Rock and Roll. Still, a bowl of grits purchased on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis is one of my most cherished college memories.

That's the nature of our idols, isn't it? We revere them until it suits us to revile them, and all along they continue to exercise their transcendent power over us.

I'm now five years younger than Elvis was when he died; maybe that's why my cynical self-promotion at Elvis' expense has given way to today's expression of sentimental solidarity. All day I've been listening to my CD of Elvis' thirty #1 hits, and regardless of what you think of the man and his music, he certainly did own the industry in his day.

And yet he remained a person in spite of all the hoopla. He had weird eating habits and a probable drug problem and horrible interior decorating skills. And he had a sense of humor, as evidenced by this piece of audio tape--a performance of "Are You Lonesome Tonight" at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. Enjoy.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Pop Quiz

Do me a favor: randomly ask someone (preferably under the age of 20) what the following phrase means:

ineffably sublime potentate

Then report your findings here. I'm just curious. My first response, from a fourteen-year-old, was "Umm, undeniably perfect."


Sunday, August 05, 2007

Age to Age

I'm conflicted today, and I'm blaming it on Sunday's worship experience.

I'm also digesting this post from its much longer first edition. It's been mentioned to me that I've outed my church before on this blog, and that despite my effort to be circumspect and respectful in the process of writing this post, I've still been a little too harsh with my opinions. So I'm editing myself out of respect for the other members of my church and its recent guests.

I'm certainly not the first to get all worked up over how a worship service is conducted, and even typing that phrase makes me realize how silly an idea that is. But for whatever reason, how we worship gets people stirred up.

Really, the details of my earlier, longer post are just details that set me to thinking about how worship ought to be organized. As significant to my thinking as this weekend's worship service was my recent rediscovery of Nickel Creek. Their greatest hits album was loaned to me this weekend by a junior higher at our church. I think it's safe to say that there's hardly a musical genre more dead than Bluegrass in the popular imagination, and yet a few years ago these three Bluegrass (or "Newgrass," I'm told) musicians, each under the age of twenty-one, got everybody jamming to the fiddle and the mandolin again.

They did it not by reasserting the genre, not by banging everybody on the knees with a banjo and shouting "Why can't you see this is better than the tripe you normally listen to?!?" but by reinventing it. The Bluegrass community had its own internal debates about how to understand Nickel Creek, but no one could deny these kids' musicianship, their place in the historical progression of Bluegrass as a genre, or the wide appeal of their music. In the meantime Nickel Creek proved compelling to the broader public; they sold a lot of records and concert tickets, and recruited a lot of new fans to the genre.

All these factors conspired to get me thinking this weekend about how, as a member of a congregation, I ought to approach worship. I think regardless of how the traditional-contemporary divide ultimately shakes out, the conversation needs to be one about creation. How have we done it? is a question with finite value; so is the question How is everyone else doing it? Ultimately each congregation must ask of itself: Who are we, and what are we doing here, together, this Sunday?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Suffering for Sufjan

I've bought two ringtones in my life. One was as cool a sappy ringtone as I could think of to alert me to incoming calls from my wife: "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd. (Her ringtone for me, by contrast, is the lilting voice of Lionel Richie asking "Hello--is it me you're looking for?") The other, I'm proud to say, is from an obscure song by Sufjan Stevens, which is tagged to announce incoming calls from everybody else.

My fondness-bordering-on-fanatical-obsession for Sufjan is well documented here and elsewhere. But I happened on this ringtone by happy accident--searching with my wife for ringtones based on Beatles songs. Sufjan contributed a quirky recording of Ringo Starr's "What Goes On" to a collection of underground artists giving tribute to the fortieth anniversary of the Beatles' Rubber Soul album. Lined up against the original, a straight-up Colonel Parker Memphis-rock standard, Sufjan's cover is virtually unrecognizable--which is pretty impressive, to be honest.

So yesterday I took the afternoon off to accommodate a whole host of errands, the first of which was donating blood, for which I was richly rewarded with cookies, Diet Coke, a pint of ice cream, two travel mugs, a thermos, a travel case and, presumably, a partridge in a pear tree. My cell phone (which was supposed to be turned off, incidentally) started ringing, and my phlebotomist and all her phlebotomizing friends and clients started laughing.

Apparently Sufjan is an acquired taste. I felt just a little like Peter the disciple of Jesus in the courtyard of the temple as Jesus stood accused inside, or Peter the apostle among the circumcision group as Paul the apostle advocated for the uncircumcised: suddenly I had to decide if I would defend my conviction that Sufjan is among the greatest musicians of our generation, or if I would join the mocking chorus and salvage my reputation at Sufjan's expense.

I leaped to Sufjan's defense, I'm simultaneously proud and embarrassed to say. I did so as much to reinforce my carefully cultivated reputation as a musical savant as I did to introduce this new audience to the joy of Sufjan. But at least I stood up for something; that's never a given.

I wonder occasionally how I would have done in the courtyard of the temple had a little girl accused me of fraternizing with Jesus. I wonder less often how I would have done if my friend the advocate of the Gentiles were being derided by the circumcision group in my presence. But they're both legitimate exercises, I think: who I'm willing to suffer for is a good indicator of who I can legitimately call my friend. I'm reminded of a song by Mark Heard:

What kind of a friend could pull a knife
When it's him or you and his kids need shoes?
What kind of a friend would do you in
When the bomb goes off and the shelter's his?
What kind of friends do friends become
When the musical chairs get down to one?
What kind of friend could I become?
What kind of friend am I?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Jane Austen Is from Venus

In case you're interested, I recently threw down the gauntlet in front of the Jane Austen Festival. You can read my rant at Behind the Books. Before you panic, however, understand that my rant is directed not at the author of Pride and Prejudice but at her idolatrous admirers.

"Don't hate the player; hate the game." I'm pretty sure Mr. Darcy said that . . .

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Vacation Bible Schools Your Child Should Skip

I've just come off a week serving as MC for our church's Vacation Bible School. It was fun, chaotic, tiring, draining, entertaining--all those sorts of things a nonparent like myself might reasonably expect to experience from prolonged exposure to a roomful of four- to twelve-year-olds.

Our theme for the week was related to cowboys, and while I don't want to name names, I noted with great private amusement that the producers of our chosen curriculum, looking for a word that rhymed with the theme, named the curriculum after a natural disaster. It got me and the other adults--particularly Tim, Afarin, Bert, Stewart and Ken--thinking about what would be the worst imaginable themes to subject small children to for Vacation Bible School. We came up with close to thirty options. Here's my top ten; I invite you to nominate your own.

10. Fun with C-Span
9. Let's Make Nikes!
8. Rocky Horror Bible School
7. Baywatch Junior
6. Death Before Dishonor!
5. The Herbs and Spices of the Bible
"Hi, my name's Herb! And these are my spices!"

4. The Plagues of Egypt
3. You'll Eat It and Like It!
2. No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition!
1. Apocalypto the Musical

Friday, July 20, 2007

Pseudo-Spam of the Day

A 4 year old girl and a 1.5 year old boy.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

You might think it's spam, but it's really an old friend from college, filling me in on his family life. I'm sure they're adorable kids, and more virtuous than virtual.

There's probably a market for BlackBerry Kids out there, however. I thought the Cabbage Patch Kids were ugly and pointless back in the day, but plenty of people disagreed with me. My sister had one, complete with adoption papers and a detachable pacifier. My brother and I would play War with it/her serving as a grenade; we'd "pull the pin" (AKA pacifier), count to three and throw the Cabbage Patch Kid from one end of the room to the other. That wouldn't fly with BlackBerry Kids; Mommy and Daddy paid six hundred bucks for that little bundle of joy.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

My Heart, Christ's Laugh Track

A friend at church is looking for a Christian devotional, and seeing as I work for a Christian publisher, I figured I could take care of her. And then, seeing as I am hopelessly self-promotional and as I happen to have a handful of entries included in one of our devotional resources--My Heart, Christ's Home Through the Year--I figured I would reread what I wrote there. Here's me, trying to sound like John Ortberg:

It's entirely possible that many of us will see no serious spiritual breakthroughs in our lives until we learn to laugh at ourselves. And that's funny, in a sad sort of way.

It's mildly amusing that I'm being so self-promotional about Christian devotional resources at the same moment I'm trying to craft a manuscript about guarding against narcissism in our Christian devotion. But that's something of what humility is, really: as the brilliant Brian Mahan puts it, "a full embrace of the joy of ongoing repentance." And anyway, surely I'm not alone--what do you do that you suspect God finds funny?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Spam of the Day

It's been a bit heavy around here lately, so today I want to help you cleanse your loud-time palate with some nice, refreshing spam. Today's Spam of the Day comes from Pablo Hathaway, who is apparently (judging by his e-mail address) currently in detox somewhere in Ontario, Canada. Despite his substantial geographical distance from suburban Chicago, he seems to know my community pretty well, because Pablo is alerting me to . . .


The rest of the e-mail is in French, directed toward someone named Fabian. My French is and always has been sketchy ("un peu, s'il vous plait"), but from what I can gather Pablo wants Fabian to come visit him when he gets out on parole. It begs the question: If you were to entice a friend to come visit you, what features of your community would you highlight? Go ahead--brag on your community a bit. As for Lombard, Illinois (my hometown), I'd probably play up the Texan Barbecue, the "Amazing Graze" deli and the close proximity to Chicago. I probably wouldn't mention the harlots.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

It's a Hard Drive's a-Gonna Fall

Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away. I was happily typing away on my computer keyboard in my office at work, listening to music I'd stored on iTunes, when all of a sudden a grinding noise interrupted my enjoyment of Half-Handed Cloud or Andrew Bird or somesuch. My hard drive crashed, and all of my music crashed with it.

I'm smart, so they tell me: I store all my working documents on the network server, so a hard-drive crash is a professional inconvenience moreso than a total calamity. When asked whether I lost anything important, I quickly responded no. Then I thought about it, and realized that I lost all the music that I've downloaded or uploaded to my computer. That doesn't affect my work, but it sure did affect my mood.

I use iTunes, but I don't have an iPod. I didn't think I needed one, since I could play songs on my PDA, which incidentally exploded on me a few weeks ago. So while I've bought my share of music from iTunes, and downloaded my share of music from artist websites, and burned my share of CDs from my collection onto my hard-drive for convenience's sake, and organized my share of playlists for the listening convenience of my networked-in coworkers, today I find myself sitting in silence, with nothing but the memory of much of my music.

Now, then, comes the task of rebuilding, which involves revisiting the relative significance of what I've stored in the past. What attracted me to these songs in the first place? Do I repurchase songs like "Freeze-Frame" by J. Geils Band or "Common People" by William Shatner (with Ben Folds and Joe Jackson), or were they simply indulgences that I ought to now forgo? Do I track down Ben Kweller's website again so I can get his songs for free, or do I bite the bullet and pay the money to support the artist? Is the studio version of Ray LaMontagne's "Trouble" adequate, or should I go looking again for the live version? And do I really like Bright Eyes and Dashboard Confessional enough to pay for their music, or should I be grateful for the time I had with their free downloads and leave it at that?

The genius of iTunes is that 99 cents seems like a pittance, a song purchase the sort of impulse that's not worth resisting. Why should I not buy "The Connection" by Phish or "I Wanna Be Sedated" by the Ramones? They take up so little space and they bring me such pleasure! Not to mention what they do for my reputation: I am legitimately regarded as eclectic by virtue of the diversity of artists included in my playlists. But do I have to have them: there's the question. If I do, then my music--and all I've allowed it to say about me--has taken possession of my person, and I have become an idolator.

I'm reminded of the rebuilding of Jerusalem's temple, recorded in Ezra 3:
All the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.

The new temple would be as nothing compared to the original, a fact that caused legitimate lament for Jerusalem's elders. But for those who were young, the wreckage of the old temple--not the temple itself--was all they had known, and so this new temple was a fresh start, bringing with it a new sense of possibility for each and everyone gathered. They cheered, and rightly so: the laying of the foundation of the second temple marked the beginning of a new era of the people of God, one into which eventually the Son of God would come.

What purpose, then, would the old temple now serve? It holds a legitimate place in the cultural memory of the Jewish people, and a significant place in the canon of Jewish and Christian scriptures. But the temple itself was dead, and the elders of Ezra's day--to have any future hope--needed to let it die.

There was a point, in fact, in Israel's history when the temple began to hinder the faith of the people of God. Jeremiah spoke bitterly on God's behalf:

Do not trust in deceptive words and say, "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!" If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. (Jeremiah 7:4-8)

Jesus challenged the cult of the temple as well in his own day: "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days!" (John 3:19). He was speaking of his body rather than the building, but that was the point: God is bigger than a building, and when we think otherwise, we've allowed the building--or our reputation, or our possessions, or whatever--to take possession of us. We've made these things into gods, and so we've become idolators.

Maybe that's overstating the case. But while we're inclined to legitimately mourn the end of something, there's a way of understanding that same moment as the beginning of something new, and to dwell on the end is to subvert the new beginning. Our posture toward the world ought to be creative rather than reactive.

I still "don't like Mondays" (the Boomtown Rats--check it out), but for now at least I'll live without it. In the meantime I'll look forward to cobbling together new playlists and exploring music afresh. In the process, maybe I'll catch some hints about what new things God might be creating in me.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Brent Anderson for President

I've made some cool friends in the seven months or so. One of them is running for president.

In fairness to Brent Anderson, I think he's been conscripted into the role. It's possible that he was pressed into service because he has the most presidential name in all of Word Made Flesh, or because he has the least insane demeanor of the bunch. I'm just saying.

Anyway, I hate to break it to my friends, but I'm pretty sure Brent is not constitutionally eligible, seeing as he's under the age of thirty-five. That being said, the official platform of Brent Anderson for President, reproduced here from the Brent Anderson for President group page on Facebook, is chock-full of creative ideas that haven't crept their way into my suburban milieu. So with the permission of the folks at Brent Anderson for President I present in what follows their platform for the direction of the U.S. government over the next four years. What do you like? What gives you pause? What are you tempted to copy into an e-mail to your major-party candidate of choice?

No Covert Ops (Allows for Counter-Ops)
The US government creates a victim mindset for its citizens by covering up its military and political activities around the world, actions which make foreign citizens angry at the US. When retaliation comes, we have no context for why they have committed these acts of violence. The US considers itself morally superior when responding to these “unprovoked” attacks.
See documentary: “Why We Fight” 2006.

Put an end to the military industrial complex
Eisenhower, in his farewell Presidential address, warned against the military industrial complex. The US spends more in discretionary income on the military than all other discretionary spending in the US budget. It also spends more on its military than the next eight countries combined.

No Standing MilitaryAs a peace advocate, I would hope for eliminating the standing army of the US and instead responding to military threats through the use of militias that could rise to meet a particular threat and then be disbanded.

Sand in the Gears of Global Capital Movement
In classical economics, land, labor, and capital are considered factors of production. The economies of the world grow because of the use and benefit of these factors. The ability for capital to move so freely around the world is good on a number of levels; however, it also encourages financial speculation, financial coercion, and promotes a race to invest in countries with poor wages but also poor environment and labor laws. The use of capital for investing in a people, industry, etc. must be encouraged by throwing sand in the gears of capital movement and creating incentives for capital to remain in one place for investment purposes. Labor should be much more mobile, to compensate for capital movements, before capital restrictions are lifted.

No Government Flood Insurance for New Home Construction on US coastline
With scientists predicting global warming and sea levels to rise, the US government puts itself in a precarious financial position by agreeing to cover these unknown risks. It also creates a moral hazard by rewarding the foolish behavior of constructing homes in these areas.

The Nation-State as a Necessary Evil
. . . The nation-state is outdated and its use of force to compel obedience is anachronistic. However, with the rise of the power of the corporation, the nation-state may need to survive as a counter-weight to power of the corporation.

Limited Government
Most of the problems that US citizens want the US government to solve were created by the US government. Limited government is the ideal. Civic organizations are the solution for many societal issues. When Baby Boomers face retirement from government positions, I would not re-hire most of those positions, instead replacing most of the personnel with technological improvements that make the government more efficient. In some ways politicians and bureaucrats should be technocrats. Efficiently managing those tasks given to them by the citizenry (the trains run on time).

Restore a Limited Line Item Veto
The Supreme Court ruled against the line-item veto for Presidents. The line-item veto, in the short-time it was used, eliminated pork projects from otherwise necessary spending bills. Now, President Bush uses signing statements, which are extra-legal notes put into the margins of bills that specify how the President interprets the bills and how they will be enforced. These extra-legal notes circumvent the power of the Congress. A limited line item veto should be restored both as a compromise and as helpful tool to limit wasteful spending.

Fiscal Responsibility
There is currently a provision that specifies that pork projects, when inserted into a bill, must show what member of Congress inserted the project, for transparency. This provision, which seems only partially in effect, would be mandated.

Lawmakers must wait 4 years before becoming a lobbyist
A provision of the Lobbying and Ethics Reform Bill, passed in 2005, increased the time a member of Congress must wait before becoming a lobbyist, from one to two years. I would encourage a waiting period of four years, to discourage the revolving door between lobbying and Congress.

Parties of Congress sit together; not split down the aisles.

Foreign Policy
No pre-emptive military strikes against other countries.
The US has recently violated international law, and its own rules in foreign policy by invading Iraq; the US should only react defensively, to protect its interests. The sovereignty of other nations must be respected. In addition, Americans are not worth more than persons of any other country

Ending Bretton Woods created institutions
The IMF and the World Bank are institutions that while they might do some good, also enslave countries into debt. (read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man). This debt makes them beholden to the US and other economically powerful nations.

Follow-through with Jubilee concept in forgiving debt of Majority world countries.

Reforming the UN (Security Council gives too much power to colonial powers)
There are plenty of calls for reforming the UN because of waste. These calls should be heeded. The UN, in its present form, does not give enough power to the nations which are not part of the Security Council. The Security Council is a vestige of the post WWII era and should be reformed.

Adhere to Kyoto Protocol
The US should adopt the Kyoto mandate to reduce greenhouse gases.

Free Public Transportation
Due to Eisenhower’s construction of the interstate highway system and car companies paying off city councils to kill trolleys and other forms of transportation, our country has been unduly dependent on the auto industry. A renewed look at trains and trolleys should be undertaken. A freeze of federal highway spending should also be undertaken.

Free Trade
A media misperception is that the US adheres to free trade, but we don’t. We claim that other countries which don’t adhere to free trade are poor because of their protectionism. Free trade is good in economics, because of comparative advantage. I would continue to press for free trade….but true free trade which eliminates a lot of the protectionism of the US. Dumping would continue to be prosecuted.

Natural Resources
Food v. Fuel
US citizens have been marketed to embrace ethanol. Ethanol is the oil-companies and agribusiness’ preference because they can corner the market and rely on present infrastructure to deliver the ethanol. Even though ethanol could be produced from switchgrass or other plants, ethanol is currently produced mostly from corn, and not the byproducts of corn. While research could help ethanol to be produced from other plants, our current situation pits corn the food v. corn the fuel. Because demand for corn has risen so dramatically, it has been priced out of the diets of many households. Many Mexican families can no longer make traditional corn tortillas for their household because of the demand for corn for ethanol in the states. I would hope Congress would pass legislation so that any plant currently used for food consumption would be outlawed from being used for fuel, unless only the plant’s byproducts would be used for the fuel.

The water crisis in the States and the larger crisis of water facing the world is one of the most endemic problems facing our world today. A severe measure needs to be taken to stave off drought in the future.
-Home lawns could no longer be watered; drought-resistant and grasses that need less water, like buffalo grass, should be planted.

-No private swimming pools

-Farming would have preference over new construction projects and new neighbors.

-Farmers would not be able to irrigate their lands unless efficient drip-irrigation methods were used. Farms that consistently need water that depletes the local water table over an average of five years, would not be able to irrigate their land. Inefficiencies, where proverbial deserts have become arable land through constant irrigation, would lose their legal right to use the water.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Class of 88, Part One

Perhaps it's the hour or so I spent flipping through my high school yearbook when I spent the night in my repatriating parents' home in Iowa last week, or the twenty-four or so hours I spent talking to Web, my high-school best friend, or perhaps the nine days or so that I'm counting down to the domestic release of the reunion album of the great Crowded House, or maybe the nerve damage I've done to my fingers emulating Stewart Copeland's drum licks on my steering wheel while listening to the Best of the Police CD I got for my birthday, or the now-only-months I'm counting down to my high-school reunion--but I'm feeling nostalgic.

I suspect I'll be nostalgic quite a bit over the next year or so, so I might as well make some use of the nostalgia and blog about my high-school experience along the way. There were both highlights and lowlights to be sure, and I'm sure I'll get to them. But today I'd rather remember one small moment that for whatever reason has stuck with me for the better part of two decades.

I took calculus in high school, not because I had any business taking calculus but because if you fancied yourself smart (which I did) you finagled a spot in calculus class (which I did). Advanced math was taught by Mr. Storm, whose name lent itself nicely to what would become a calculus class tradition: "I Survived the Storm" t-shirts. I have no memory whatsoever of any aspect of calculus, but I remember some of the things I would do instead of calculus while I was sitting in calculus class.

My clearest calculus memory is when my friend Jenny, who sat in front of me, turned around and scribbled on my looseleaf paper in my Trapper Keeper (or something like that):

I guess you'd call it suicide
But I'm too full to swallow my pride.

By this point in my life I had known people who struggled with anorexia, bulimia, early-onset alcoholism and undiagnosed hyperactivity disorder. But I hadn't encountered what the experts might call suicidal ideation--at least in the form of a cry for help. I didn't know what to do; I was worried for my friend, but I didn't want her to get in trouble, but I didn't want her to die, and she seemed so happy really, and what would possess her to write such a dour message in such a sprighty, giddy script? She practically dotted her i's with flowers, for pete's sake.

Class was dismissed and I chased Jenny down to ask her about what she had written.

"Come on, Dave! It's from the Police!"

Turns out it's a lyric from "I Can't Stand Losing You," which I'm sure I proceeded to interpret as my friend Jenny coming on to me. I was a wimp, so I didn't follow that line of investigation. I did, however, become a much more serious student of song lyrics after that.

Now I'm older, and I've known people who have killed themselves, and I've known people who have lost loved ones to suicide, and I've watched my flippant comments inadvertently cause them pain, and I've tried to convince suicidal friends to seek help. With the passage of time I find that I have little tolerance left for song lyrics that deal cavalierly with life and death.

Lyrics offer articulation to people who can't otherwise articulate their feelings. Go to a myspace page and you'll be introduced to the song that most effectively evokes the blogger's current state of mind. Borrow someone's i-Pod and you'll see how they arrange their music to attend to their mood changes. Ask them what song is in their head and you'll get some small insight into what else is in their head.

But when a songwriter, even one so gifted as Sting, commandeers language of desperation to communicate an otherwise mundane point, he betrays his audience. Sting likes irony, and he finds it funny when people dance to his stalker song "Every Breath You Take" (1983) at their wedding. But he's not great with hyperbole: I hope he would weep if a teenager quoted "I Can't Stand Losing You" in a suicide note--weep for the person who had overestimated the intensity of young love; weep for the naivete that allowed a person to assign such power to his words; weep for the victim, weep for himself, and weep for what the world has become.

The apostle James speaks in more controlled hyperbole in his New Testament letter:

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:7-8)

I'm in the business of words these days, and so I can't abide by flippancy or carelessness--even in my own use of language. My authors count on me (whether they realize it or not) to tame their tongue; I likewise count on my coworkers, my friends, and the readers of my blogs to rein me in when it's needed. The tongue is too dangerous without some checks in place.

That's not to say that every lyric must be shiny and happy, of course. Irony has a powerful voice, and when used properly it communicates--even ministers--better than straightforwardness. If Jenny had instead written these classic lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, set to a melancholy tune and ripe with subtle meaning, I like to think I would have kept worrying, and I would not have accepted her dismissive response:

Smile though your heart is aching;
Smile even though it's breaking. . . .
That's the time you must keep on trying,
Smile, what's the use of crying?
You'll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Oh the Places You'll Google

Earlier this evening I drove to the theater in my wife's car, since from the sound of it my car needs servicing, to see Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, which was infinitely better than the first Fantastic Four film and vastly better than I expected it to be. The theater was having a special sale on fine European chocolate bars--where else but a movie theater would you expect to find such an indulgence--so I indulged myself. Tomorrow I'll take my car in for service at the place I bought it. So tonight I'm googling Pugi while eating Toggi.

I'm sorry: that amuses me.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Road Trippin

This past weekend I hit the road, Jack, with my parents and my best friend from high school. That's an odd combination--depending on your perspective, it's either peanut butter and jelly or matter and anti-matter (where my Star Trek fans at?!?)

In our case, it was peanut butter-jelly time, all the way. I brought piles and piles of stuff to read, edit or write, and instead I talked and listend and laughed. Dan and I are going to trade posts for a little while, I think, to make sure we cover the whole ground of our trip from Iowa to Texas and back, but suffice to say, for now, that the Midwest is a weird, weird place. To prove my point, consider this: in Osceola, Iowa, there's a sixty-foot tall cartoon sherrif overlooking I-80. His name is Terrible Herb. Check him out here.

Friday, June 22, 2007

If It's Too Complicated, You're Too Old

I have a new cell phone. I bought it to replace my PDA, which I apparently stepped on and which now serves no discernible purpose. My new cell phone is fun; it has games that cost nothing and a Sufjan Stevens ring tone that I paid good money for. But I can't seem to figure out how to access my voice mail, which means that at least in one of its core functions, my new phone serves no discernible purpose.

Sure, I'll blame the phone. But deep down I know it's me. There's something patently obvious that I am patently oblivious to. In my most self-aware moments, I'll even admit it.

I've heard the stories over the years of how people struggle with new technologies, how they show their age by their lack of understanding. A comedian on Last Comic Standing told her audience that her mother still unplugs the microwave every night; "She's afraid that one of her cats will punch in a time sequence, climb into the microwave and pull the door closed behind her, and then another cat in some bizarre feline suicide pact will press the start key." That's the cultural clash of new technologies: for every one person who sees the new tech as a great leap forward, there's another person who sees a potential apocalypse.

I'm inclined to find a middle ground; new technologies are cultural artifacts in the sense that they follow as much as they lead. They don't descend from on high; they're created in a process that involves time, attention and trial and error. A sense of lack is the call; new tech is the response.

At the same time, new tech reflects a cultural reality: the myth of perpetual progress. Not that history doesn't progress, but at least part of the sense of lack is driven by the idea that things must change, that if we're not changing we're atrophying and might as well be dying. I chose my current cell phone from a pool of competing cell-novelties, and my purchase was made in the shadow cast by the imminent release of the iPhone, which will make my PDA phone look decidedly quaint.

But whether new tech is driven by our psychological fear of death or our pragmatic sense that something could be made easier, the net result is that new tech is a new reality, and new realities demand new ways of adapting. Some people can swing it, others can't. So what happens when these folks meet?

Depends on who's meeting, I suppose, and what they're meeting for. When the Minutemen met the Redcoats during the American Revolution, the Redcoats were marching in a straight line while the Minutemen snuck around free form. And now Americans drive on the right side of the road and spell neighbor without a u. U do the math.

But there's a better way, I think, and it's reflected in the nature of Christian community. The apostle Paul tells those who are strong to support those who are weak. Peter tells those who are powerful not to lord it over those who are not but to serve them by example. John commends the young for their strength and the old for their wisdom. And the lot of them suggest that whatever our individual assets or liabilities, we're meant to be there for one another.

I had that experience this morning. I and a coworker were fretting over how to get a task done. The work--reproducing a document in digital form--seemed daunting and distasteful, and we were about to (apologetically but mercilessly) dump it on our intern. She was surprisingly willing, and off-handedly remarked that she didn't have to retype it; she could simply scan it. My coworker and I--I in my thirties, she in her twenties--were dumbstruck; the only word we could come up with was "Brilliant!"

And now, the only word I can come up with is "Duh!"

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Chewing the Fat at In the Fray

Somewhere along the way I got connected to the online magazine In the Fray. They published two articles of mine when my first book came out: one on female action heroes and the other on Batman as social construct. The magazine is admittedly an odd fit for me, and I for them, but they've been very kind. Up now is "Cutting Down to Size," a confessional article about my sense of self-importance. Read it here if you'd like to see me put myself in my place.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Miraculous Palindrome

The saddest thing I've ever witnessed is the funeral of a boy named Sam. The firstborn of his parents, he died the day after he was born. I walked into that sanctuary the day of his funeral with nothing to say, no words of encouragement or consolation to offer his parents. His father was pastor of the church, and a little part of me considered that this funeral might mark the end of his faith, and perhaps the end of that little church.

A few months passed and we went to Sam's parents' house for dinner. They showed us a sonogram photo, which we assumed to be their son, and we were sad until they told us that this was their new baby, due to be born in a matter of months.

Several months later a little girl was born and named Hannah--"my favorite palindrome," I liked to say. She was followed by two sisters and carried the weight of miracle: a symbol to her parents and their friends and family that every once in a while God turns mourning into dancing.

Some five years later, last Friday morning I came to my office to find an e-mail from my wife and a frantic message from a coworker that Hannah and her grandfather had gone missing Wednesday night in a boating accident. By this time the rescue teams had switched to searching by sonar--underwater technology that foreshadowed a death announcement. My mind went back to the funeral of Hannah's brother, and a little part of me thought that this might mark the end of her parents' faith, and perhaps mine as well.

Some four hours later, the body of Hannah's grandfather was found. Shortly after that, Hannah wandered out of the woods bordering the river, stumbling onto the search party that had been looking for her for two days. She was a revelation--an unmitigated marvel for national news outlets and local friends and neighbors to wonder over. I saw some other friends later and we looked in awe at their own five year old, trying in vain to imagine her living in the woods for two days with nothing but a swimsuit and water wings to protect her. Hannah's father, meanwhile, told reporters that Hannah took the experience in stride. "She was eating her banana looking at us. We were jumping around like maniacs."

Two miracles in one lifetime is something, and to be blissfully unaware of your own miraculousness is something even more. Hannah didn't know when she was born that she was in a small way redeeming the ache her parents had felt at the death of her brother. She didn't know that the pain still lingered, either; Sam's name is tattooed on the skin of his mother as a testament to the role he has played in the life of their family. Hannah was blissfully unaware of all of it; she began her life as anyone else would, accepting the reality she was presented with, and seeking to make her way meaningfully through it.

Hannah didn't know that her grandfather had died, either--probably saving her life, as it turns out. She wandered through the woods thinking that grandpa had gone swimming, and that she ought to get herself back to his cottage. Meanwhile her family and friends panicked, unable to imagine the miraculous because miracles are by definition unimaginable.

Hannah's miraculous birth and miraculous deliverance from death are both tethered to tragedies that no one has forgotten: even as we celebrate Hannah's life, we mourn her grandfather and remember her brother. But we remember as well that Hannah's story is unfinished, and as such we're reminded that our story is unfinished as well. And from now on when I look at Hannah I'll be reminded that amidst all the tragedy that marks every story there's a God working quietly, sometimes unimaginably, to redeem our aches and to turn our mourning into dancing.