Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It's the End of the Year as We Know It

It's been a long December
and there's reason to believe
maybe this year will be better than the last. . . .

Now the days go by so fast . . .

I tried to tell myself to hold on to these moments as they pass . . .
--"A Long December" by Counting Crows

Happy year-end. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

O Little Town of Me-Ville

No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

Merry Christmas from Loud Time.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

So This Is Advent--And What Have We Done?

A final reflection for Advent 2008.
And in despair I bowed my head
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men."

--From the carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Ministry of the Missional Church

I serve on the elder board and the “vision team” of my church. I also serve on the “banner committee,” because the village our church is in (Lombard, Illinois) has a thing about how, where and when churches hang banners on their property. But that has nothing to do with anything.

As is often the case during staff transitions and annual budgeting, my church is in the midst of a discernment process. I took this as an opportunity to get better acquainted with the trend du jour among church planters and planners—the missional church movement—so I read the cheapest book I could find on the subject, which happened to be a copy of The Ministry of the Missional Church by Craig Van Gelder, a professor of congregational mission at Luther Seminary.

Left by one of my coworkers on the free table, it’s a densely written and highly complex book about, essentially, “what the church is—that is, a community created by the spirit and . . . has a unique nature, or essence, which gives it a unique identity.” (p. 17) Van Gelder seeks to establish the primary mission of each church, which is, in brief, “to understand the leading of the Spirit in shaping the church’s ministry.” (p. 19)

Each church’s responsibility is twofold: the church embodies the Spirit in pursuit of (a) the integrity of the body of Christ and (b) the mission of God. So we have this dual responsibility that is both harmonic—we resemble Christ in how we relate to one another—and melodic—we follow God into our locality and beyond to reconcile the world to God and itself. This is not an easy task but it is also not an uphill climb: the mission of God has been accomplished in the ministry of Christ and is now proclaimed and projected forward. Likewise we are empowered by the Spirit in our pursuit of a communal life that rightly bears the name “body of Christ.”

Nevertheless, the challenge of “maintaining our harmony” and “keeping sight of our melody” is very real, in part because contexts are always changing. “Contexts go through fundamental change, which require congregations to consider how they might respond. . . . On the surface such congregations [might] appear to be in inevitable decline and a slow death. In reality, new opportunities for mission and ministry await their engagement.” (pp. 48-49)

So the responsible church keeps an eye out for the inevitable changes in its context.

• How has the economic status of its community changed over time?
• How has the demographic mix changed over time?
• How does the average person in the church’s context define “the good life”?
• How does the average person define moral and ethical responsibility?
• What expectations does the average person bring to relational life? God?
• What forecasts can be reasonably anticipated regarding the church’s context?
• How do these changes manifest themselves in outreach and life together?

Beyond these observations, however, the church has the theological responsibility to view its context through the eyes of Christ, “to discern the work of God that is taking place.” (p. 59) Van Gelder filters this down to two questions:

• What is God doing? This is a question of faith and discernment.
• What does God want to do? This is a question of wisdom and planning.

So the vision of any church is a responsive exploration of those two questions: What is God doing in my town? What is God doing among the people of my church? Moreover, what does God want to do in these little communities? “Every congregation,” Van Gelder concludes, “needs to learn how to confess the faith within its particular context.” (p. 66)

The Ministry of the Missional Church isn’t the book to systematically retrofit your church for its next season of meaningful ministry. The average layperson—say, for example, me—would be regularly confused by the mix of scholarship, theology and jargon, and the chapters don’t yield immediate, specific action plans. No, this is a foundational book, and as such it’s worth a slow read among the culture leaders of your church, to figure out what questions to ask of their church, their community and themselves in order to lead their culture well.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Auld Acquaintance

A few weeks ago there was a meeting in Philadelphia that brought together all sorts of Christian speakers, authors, thinkers and activists. I have little sense of what they talked about, since I wasn't invited. (Sniff.) But I know that at least a few of the people there talked about me.

I know because some of them told me. Several of the people there I've had the pleasure of editing their books; a few of them are early in the process of being edited by me. Some of them I occasionally fantasize about editing their next book. Many of them I've met face to face; some of them have let me crash their parties or camp out on their couch; a couple of them I know only through e-mail or Facebook. They spent a few moments in Philadelphia laughing together over my quirks and nincompoopery, and those who hadn't seen the seven-minute video of me prancing around in a spandex bodysuit were strongly encouraged to do so by the others. Ha ha very funny.

As I heard back from folks who attended this conference I realized why the past year and a half has been so gratifying for me professionally--to the point where my job satisfaction is now linked to a different set of expectations than previously. Somewhere along the way in the last couple of years, many of my authors became my friends.

Editing is, perhaps surprisingly, in many ways a numbers game. How many books did you acquire this year? How many did you publish? How much did you pay out in advances? Which book sold the most copies? Books are artifacts, someone like the great Andy Crouch might tell you, and as such they're objects that we can be objective about as we reflect on our career path.

These days, however, I think of my publishing career more in terms of relationships. I think of Andy, whose book I had nothing to do with, who indulged my geeky hero worship and allowed it to morph into friendship, who offered me gracious yet candid feedback about the first draft of my own book. I think of Karen Sloan, who is everywhere and knows everyone. I think of Scott Bessenecker, who gets this look in his eye when he's about to be a genius. I think of Chris and Phileena Heuertz, who let me sleep on their couch and drink their wine and crash their parties and pester their colleagues, who make jokes that nobody else in my life has the moxie to make, and whose work with Word Made Flesh inspires me and convicts me. I think of Jason Santos, who wears cool glasses and left the staff of my church long before I arrived and who makes me laugh even while we're discussing the sixty-year evolution of the Taize community. I think of Kimberlee Conway Ireton, who fed me souffle and killed me at speed Scrabble, and who brings a bold thoughtfulness and authenticity to everything she does. I think of Tamara Park, who cracks me up, devotes the lion's share of all our conversations not to her book but to my psyche, and who teaches me about writing simply by showing me what she's written. I think of Mike Sares, who can't get his book finished because he's too busy ministering to the right-brained and the left-out. I think of Matt Rogers, who popped out two books in one calendar year and was shockingly humble throughout the process. I think of Laura Barkat, who's far too young to be a sage but seems to nevertheless serve that purpose. I think of Andy Marin, who is unrelentingly optimistic even when people are banging on him for no good reason, and who showed up out of nowhere to singlehandedly change a controversial conversation.

Then there are folks whom I've not yet had the pleasure of publishing: Dan Kimball, who can't help but be cool; Margaret Feinberg, who can't help but be wonderful; Sean Gladding, who can't help but be insightful; Anthony Smith, who can't help but be brilliant; and Kent Annan, who now that he's signed his contract can't help but be edited by me. These and all sorts of other people whose orbit of the Christian publishing industry occasionally crosses my own are what make publishing fun, fulfilling, worthwhile work.

I know for certain that I'm forgetting more than one person whose book I've edited or whose path I've crossed as part of my job. I also know that publishing is not the only environment in which I've made meaningful friendships in the past couple of years. I further am painfully aware that this is a uniquely sappy post. I apologize for all these failings, and yet I write this post for a relatively modest purpose: to serve as an artifact for 2008, a reminder to myself and a symbol to the folks who wander by here that, despite all its challenges and frustrations and even great sadnesses, at the end of this year I am content.

Go to to find books by many of the people I mentioned in this post. If you don't find them listed there, here's to hoping that I can get their signatures on a contract and their last names on the spine of an IVP book.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Hope Trumps Cynicism, Cynicism Poisons Spirit, Spirit Yearns for Hope

"I am beginning to think that cynicism might be a luxury only the privileged can entertain. For those not privileged by race or power or money, hope is what you rely on for life." Leroy Barber, New Neighbor

"I have no response to that." David A. Zimmerman, cynic

Saturday, December 13, 2008

I’m the Governor! I’m Important, Yo!

Pardon my long post, but I'm feeling a bit heady. Illinois is a heady place these days, after all: the Bears may make the playoffs, the junior U.S. senator is about to become president, and the governor is about to be impeached and imprisoned. The 2016 Olympics are a possibility here that is strengthened by our favorite son ascending to the presidency but weakened by our chief executive allegedly conducting a political crime spree.

I’m fascinated by the governor’s story. He’s been in view here far longer than President-Elect Obama, to be honest, and his own presidential aspirations have never been far below the surface. Senator John McCain, the “maverick” reformer cum failed presidential candidate, told David Letterman that Governor Blagojevich once told him that he considered himself a reformer like McCain, thanking him for being a political role model. McCain and Letterman shared a laugh over those comments, absurd as they sound alongside transcripts of foul-mouthed shakedowns from the governor’s office.

The conversation about Governor Blagojevich has shifted, at least temporarily, to the question of his mental health. People think he must have been crazy to conduct so brazen a campaign as the one to sell a senate seat and force the firing of critical journalists. The mental health community, however, is stopping short of calling the governor psychotic; instead, they’re calling him a narcissist.

Dr. Daniela Schreirer is a forensic psychologist at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and she does not see any sign of mental illness in the public Blagojevich, but believes he does have sociopathic traits.
"We're just talking about traits. We're not talking about full-blown diagnosis. But certainly, there's the same sense of entitlement, the same sense of thinking I am superior. I can do whatever I want. I am not going to be caught," Schreirer said.

Blagojevich was, at one time, a rising star. He achieved office initially by being charming and self-deprecating; an advertising campaign consisted of everyday Illinoisans struggling to pronounce his last name but admiring his qualifications and energy. He eventually became a U.S. Representative and made a name for himself by helping to negotiate the release of three American soldiers, who were being detained in Yugoslavia under dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

Three years later he was running for governor, but the presidency was on his mind. In an ad that cemented his reputation in my mind as a twerp, he had grade-school students quiz him about American presidents: “Sixteenth president?” “Abraham Lincoln! . . .” Ostensibly about his commitment to education, the ad told me that he viewed the governorship as a stepping stone to his true destiny as president of the United States. And yet he spoke clearly, candidly and winsomely with interviewers, among other things stating with enthusiasm that he and his family “love Jesus.” This at the time was one of the most plainspoken, unambiguous comments on personal faith I'd heard from a candidate who wasn't in the pocket of the religious right. So while I didn’t vote for him (remember, I thought he was a twerp), I had hopes that his tenure as governor would be marked by policies that reflected his love for Jesus—just and compassionate programs, ethical policies and practices.

Blagojevich became governor in what might be considered the easiest campaign ever: the current Republican governor, George Ryan, was on notice that he’d be facing trial after his term ended, and the Republican candidate to replace him shared the same last name: Jim Ryan, no relation. For the second time in his career, Blagojevich’s last name carried him into office. Four years later the Illinois Republican party still couldn’t get its act together; State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka was the only Republican holding statewide office, and when she ran against the governor on the argument that he had failed both to manage the state’s economy and to fight corruption, one video of her dancing with former Governor Ryan put an end to her chances to unseat Blagojevich. He made Elvis jokes about being “All Shook Up” over his victory and settled into his second term.

The governor’s second term has been characterized mainly by gridlock. It seems that he’s systematically alienated everyone in state government, such that the legislature and the Chicago Transit Authority, among other institutions, faced near-implosion while he sat in the bleachers enjoying hockey games. Some tried to call a constitutional convention for the express purpose of making it legal to recall his position; others spoke explicitly and frequently about his grandstanding and bullheadedness.

Barack Obama, it’s presumed, frustrated Blagojevich’s career plans by taking the national spotlight in 2004's Democratic National Convention and launching an ultimately successful presidential campaign in 2007. This was to be Blagojevich’s year, if you believe the scuttlebutt, but public and peer opinion had turned against him, so that by election day 2008 he had, among his liabilities, a federal investigation into his office and a devastatingly negative reputation among his constituents, and as almost his only asset, a recently vacated senate seat.

I feel bad for Rod Blagojevich. That’s a relatively new feeling for me; I’ve typically dismissed him as a mere worshiper of “the characteristically American bitch goddess of Success,” as Mark Stritcherz put it in America magazine. But Blagojevich is merely the most recent and most pronounced example of the pervasive streak of narcissism, with its attendant sense of entitlement and invulnerability, that runs through our culture and, I think, every human heart.

Blagojevich is, in that respect, this year’s Gary Hart, who dared reporters to follow him in their suspicions of his infidelity, and who resigned his own presidential campaign when they did exactly that and caught him in an affair. Blagojevich is this year’s Richard Nixon, who publicly told onlookers “I am not a crook” but who privately and obscenely violated the law on tape. He’s this year’s Ananias, who made a grand public gesture in donating his wealth to the early church but who was revealed to be just another poser with a wicked heart. He's this year’s Cain, who killed his brother and then stared down God with a brazen dismissal of the accusation: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He's this year's me, and all the mes here in Me-Ville.

Stritcherz goes on to lament the Me-Ville we find ourselves in, a world effectively incapable of policing itself or aspiring to self-sacrifice toward the greater good, by describing the world we've fallen short of:

In a morally and spiritually robust society, institutions identify such characters as rascals and discipline them accordingly; they can separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were.

I paraphrase the apostle Paul: Who will rescue us from this city of death? Thanks be to God who, if we dare follow, will deliver us from Me-Ville, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Shameless Stocking Stuffer Solicitation

To be an author in the third millennium is to be a shameless self-promoter, a crass hawker of wares; consequently, I have selfliness* to promote and wares to hawk. So let me humbly remind you that Deliver Us from Me-Ville makes a fine, inexpensive Christmas gift!

Nothing says "Merry Christmas!" quite like a book in a decorative stocking, if I do say so myself; I have a Batman(tm) Christmas stocking hung on my office bulletin board with care, and the copy of Deliver Us from Me-Ville sticking out of it really adds to the ambiance. After all, nothing keeps Christ in Christmas quite like a book which presumes that all of society--including the people on your gift list--is hopelessly narcissistic.

To those of you who are even now muttering, "Put a sock in it, Dave!" I respond in true humility: put it in your sock.**

Happy holidays,
Dave Zimmerman,
author, Deliver Us from Me-Ville

*A word coined by a kid in my church. I like it; it's clever.
**The one hung by your chimney with care.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mortgaging Mansions of Glory

This week I sat in on a meeting to discuss how to finance a multi-million dollar settlement to victims of sexual abuse. This conversation was on top of an earlier report on another case of abuse currently under review. These are horrific, horrific things, and the discussion unavoidably and appropriately included a lament for the kind of people we've become, the kind of world we inherited, the kind of world we're cultivating.

The meeting took place inside an unbelievably ornate sanctuary in a church in the heart of downtown Chicago. I was billed $26 for five hours of public-access parking, although it was discounted to $6 by the church. As we discussed our options for paying this settlement, I was struck by the idea that the group we represented had multiple millions of dollars in assets, enough for which such a large settlement was an appropriate decision.

Bundled with this settlement, of course, were the realities of a difficult economy and a denomination in decline. We were forced to decide what line items in the budget to cut, how many people to lay off, what investments to sell. All the while I was distracted by how ornate this building was, how appropriately it sat among the impressive architecture of the city of Chicago, how much money over the decades had gone into its upkeep and expansion. My friend commented that this church's budget for maintenance probably rivaled our church's entire annual budget.

I don't mean to bang on this church. It actually does a great deal for its community and has a pretty clear commitment to social responsibility in its context. Two homeless men were sleeping next to me on the pew throughout our meeting, for example, and no one asked them to leave or bothered them at all. And the denomination of which this church is a part has a longstanding, firm commitment to pursue justice and love mercy. But the surreality of this discussion--these assets, these liabilities, this dying tradition, these horrific crimes, this troubled context--hasn't left me since I drove out of the city and back into the suburbs.

I'm no stranger to church capital campaigns. I've been involved in at least one at every church of my adult life. I am, however, a relative stranger to the ornate church. The churches I've been involved with are decades, not centuries, old. They were built in a more pragmatic time and place than the cathedrals of the great cities, so they're built to suit, not to impress. They don't skimp on budget for their physical plant, but the decisions they make--even the really weird ones--are relatively utilitarian. We need lights and sound and video and audio for worship and special events. We need double-pane glass windows and air conditioning for climate control. We need an elevator to assist the elderly in getting from worship to fellowship.

These are all sensible expenses in the midst of discussing annual budgets and in the localized conversation about the ongoing work of a particular church. But when you step out of the budget meeting and even out of yourself and notice that you're in a room that cost millions to decorate, that you're discussing how you're going to pay off people that someone in your community molested, that you're about to tell a handful of people that they no longer have jobs, that there are two people who have nothing sleeping in the middle of the day in the middle of this ornate complex . . . Suddenly it's hard to justify the cost of paint and lighting and carpet.

I have no solutions to this dilemma, mostly because I'm lazy and fearful and uncreative when it comes to addressing need. Chris Heuertz in his book Simple Spirituality writes about a girl who gave all her pacifiers to poor children as an expression of solidarity; Brian Mahan in his book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose writes about Dorothy Day's childhood epiphany about poverty over a plate of donuts; Francis of Assisi wrote about his vision of God telling him to rebuild the church, and when he started actually rebuilding an actual church building, how God redirected him to give all his wealth forever to the poor. These are moral guides for the wealthy church, but they're hard to follow when we have these day-to-day decisions to make about paint and carpet and technology. They say the devil is in the details, and in weeks like this I suspect that when they say this, they're talking about budget meetings.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Gift That Keeps On "Smashing Those Sacred Cows into Oblivion"

Nice review of my book from the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. Many thanks to Walt Mueller, who also endorsed the book. Makes a good Christmas gift to older high school students, college students and above, and the parents and pastors who deal with them, if I do say so myself.

We need people who help us recognize the sacred cows that are so familiar to our lives that we don’t even know they exist. And, we need those people to take us a step further, helping us to catch a vision for smashing those sacred cows into oblivion so that we might grasp and live God’s grand vision for our lives.

In his book, Deliver Us From Me-Ville (David C. Cook, 2008, ISBN #978-1-4347-0009-4), David Zimmerman takes us on an aerial tour of Me-Ville, the place where many North American Christians have laid down their roots and have called “home” for a long, long time. Zimmerman masterfully and simply exposes the lay of the Me-Ville land, helping us see how living there keeps us from living fully in the Kingdom of God. What Zimmerman delivers is a compelling call that we can either follow, or choose to walk away from—as the Scriptures tell us—with deep sadness.

Deliver Us From Me-Ville is a timely and challenging guide out of worshipping and serving the contemporary “holy trinity” of me, myself and I, reminding us that our purpose only can be found in the relentless pursuit of Christ and His Kingdom. This is a book that you can read and teach, prayerfully asking God to challenge our materialistic and selfish American-Dream distortion of Christianity, while providing a road map to the place where we belong.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Jean Vanier Is a Genius

I ran into Jean Vanier over and over and over this year. Vanier is the founder of L'arche, an international network of communities in which the able-bodied and the disabled live together, serving to heal one another and flourish as a community. I'ver read about, and read from, Vanier in the past, but this year he seemed to be everywhere I turned.

* I had a moment of epiphany where I thought he might be a good teacher for my book, so I re-read Becoming Human and quoted him frequently in Deliver Us from Me-Ville.

* My friend Chris Heuertz, director of Word Made Flesh and author of a book I edited, Simple Spirituality, received a really nice endorsement from Vanier.

* Vanier coauthored a book with Stanley Hauerwas, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, which my employer published this fall and I just finished reading this morning.

* I once rescued a tattered copy of his book Community and Growth from a broken-down home being renovated in a rough-and-tumble Chicago neighborhood, but I've never read it. Matt Woodley, the author of Holy Fools, told me it changed his life.

Vanier, it seems, is everywhere I want to be. He offers a deceptively simple understanding of what it means to be Christian and what it means to be human. He addresses the first in Living Gently in a Violent World:

Faith in Jesus is trust that we are loved. It is knowing that deeper than being part of a group, religious or otherwise, there is the fundamental experience of becoming a friend of truth, a friend of Jesus, a friend of God. But I can't do this alone. I need community. I need friends.

I was recently challenged to write a statement of my faith in 140 characters or less. It strikes me that such an exercise would be relatively easy for someone like Vanier, whose strong intellect is eclipsed by his courageous ethics and his steadfast humility. I imagine his Twitter of Faith might read something like this:

I am loved, therefore I am.
I am, therefore I must love.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Of the Making of Books There Is No End

A friend of mine in the publishing business has often compared books to little missionaries: they go where we can't, they speak to people we might otherwise never meet, they propel conversations that otherwise might have died on the vine of our own locality. It's a nice image, a helpful rationale for publishing as an industry. No less voluminous a writer than N. T. Wright, however, offers a counterpoint in the closing paragraphs of his John for Everyone commentary:

Once the Word has become flesh, all the books in the world can't do justice to it. Nothing less than flesh can now do justice to the meaning of the Word: your flesh, my flesh. Books can reach a small way out into the world. Our lives, in the power of the spirit, can reach a lot further.

I suppose that both these statements are true. Books serve their purpose, and to the degree that we share our scholarship among various localities we are binding the whole church together and deepening its discipleship. But to the degree that books are nonrelational--to the degree that they dictate rather than converse, decree rather than contextualize--they fall short of the relational kingdom that Jesus calls us into. Books are means to an end; the end is that author and audience, like Paul and his correspondents, would have one another in their hearts, would share in God's grace.

Incidentally, and appropos to this post, if you're looking for a nonprofit to throw your money at this December, consider Word Made Flesh. Their executive director, Chris Heuertz, wrote a mighty book this year called Simple Spirituality, but their main work is to build relationships of justice and mercy with some of the poorest people in the world. Helping them out is tantamount to helping a community of women trapped in the sex trade find their way out, or helping a garbage dump community of outcastes fight for just treatment and human dignity. Plus, they're just really good people to be in a relationship with.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Unforced Rhythms of Grace

Sabbath is a holy word. It must be--it's in the ten commandments. Then again, so is kill, but the context is different. So there. Sabbath is a holy word because sabbath is a holy concept. It's at least a twofold idea: (1) on the seventh day, God rested, therefore we ought to mark each week with a time of rest; (2) to be human is to be enslaved--either literally, to another person, or spiritually, to sin--but to be a child of God is to be free, therefore we rest to celebrate the freedom that God gives his children. The Jewish people and later, in modified form, the church have ordained opportunities to honor this twofold idea, and so sabbath has become a sanctified concept, a holy word.

Rest, on the other hand, has gotten a bum rap. Rest is remedial, an admission of our limits. While sabbath is for the saints, rest is for the weak.

Keri Wyatt Kent has written a book on rest. It's also ostensibly a book on sabbath, because it has to be: a Christian book on rest is a tough sell. So Keri coins the phrase "Sabbath Simplicity" to extrapolate sabbath from a weekly rite to a lifestyle of rest, working out from the biblical conversation about sabbath to a rhythm of life for twenty-first century American families.

I should note at this point that I took up Keri's offer to bloggers she knew to read the book at the proof stage and review it online. Consequently, quotations I make of the book should be checked against the final, published form. I suspect there will be only minor editorial differences between what you read here and what you'll read there.

I gladly took this project on even though I'm fairly far removed from the Kent family lifestyle. I became a fan of Keri Wyatt Kent when InterVarsity Press (my employer) published her first book, God's Whisper in a Mother's Chaos. It was fresh, honest, helpful and charitable. I'm not a mother, of course, so I appreciated the book from a certain epistemological distance, and while Kent hasn't quite been pigeonholed into writing only for women, she has taken on a "family writer" kind of brand that as a nonparent I struggle to fully identify with. I also don't have any hard and fast sabbath routine to speak of. Nevertheless, I'm a fan of writings on the sabbath, ever since my early editorial experience working with Lynne Baab on the book Sabbath Keeping, a great introduction into the history and practicalities of the discipline. So I was pleased to read this book and write up a review of it.

Keri is a no-nonsense writer; a busy mother and type-A Christian, she cuts to the chase and gets to the point, which is interesting considering that the chapters of this book are unusually long. I suspect she recognizes that, while we are all likely to nod our heads and mutter "Amen" to talk of sabbath rest, we are more likely to think of it in a similar way to how we think of the resurrection, which is to say, we think that sabbath has very little to do with our everyday lives. That, coupled with a cultural bias against rest that leads us to brag about our busyness and experience shame during times of inactivity, is a big hurdle to the kind of lifestyle retraining that Keri has in mind for us, so she spends extra time making the case that rest is achievable and desirable.

Keri makes sabbath local, telling stories from her home and her neighborhood that tether the idea of rest to similarly elusive concepts such as loving your neighbor. When we practice rest regularly, we put the activities that preoccupy us into proper perspective, so that an interruption from an acquaintance becomes less a nuisance or a crisis and more an opportunity to serve, to enter into the reality of another person, to entertain angels in disguise. It was in the context of sabbath, she reminds us, during the Israelites' exodus that the manna which normally spoiled within twenty-four hours miraculously lasted for forty-eight. Sabbath, and the lifestyle of rest that flows from it, is an act of faith: a hyper-reality in which the rules don't necessarily apply and what is normally impossible becomes possible--like Jesus showing up in a locked room, like us loving our enemies.

Sabbath is a means to an end, a sanctified practice that opens an avenue to a lifestyle rooted in rest. "When people ask, 'How can I do Sabbath?' I ask them, 'Do you know how to eat, relax, and sleep?'" Obviously there's more to sabbath than these three things, and Keri goes to great length in defining and realizing them for her readers. But such is the paradoxical faith we celebrate: entering into a discipline opens up to us a world of grace. "Take my yoke upon you," Jesus invites us--and we might consider a day of inactivity for every six of our culturally approved hyperactivity to be something of a yoke--"and you will find rest for your souls."

Monday, November 17, 2008

Dave Zimmerman Googles Himself

I admit it: I occasionally monitor the Internet for chatter about Deliver Us from Me-Ville. I'm one of those authors with no platform of his own, so my success as a writer depends on the viral potential of the Internet. So yeah, every now and again I google myself.

Today, somewhere around page 18 of a Google search for "Deliver Us from Me-Ville," I found a user profile on GodTube, which is a Christian video alternative to YouTube. The user is a teenager in Phoenix, Arizona. Listed on her profile under "Favorite Books" is "The Bible!! Deliver Us from Me-Ville." Take that, Purpose-Driven Life.

In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that the first entry under "Favorite TV Shows" is Cops. Take that, Meet the Press.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

John Stott Is a Genius

When it comes to Me-Ville, Jesus, says John Stott in his Basic Christianity, is a stranger to these parts.

It is this paradox that is so amazing, this combination of the self-centeredness of his teaching and the unself-centeredness of his behavior. In thought he put himself first; in deed last.He exhibited both the greatest self-esteem and the greatest self-sacrifice. He knew himself to be the Lord of all, but he became their servant. He said that he would one day come to judge the world, but he washed the feet of his friends. . . .

This utter disregard of self in the service of God and man is what the Bible calls love. There is no self-interest in love. The essence of love is self-sacrifice. Even the worst of us is adorned by an occasional flash of such nobility, but the life of Jesus irradiated it with a never-fading incandescent glow.

Jesus was sinless because he was selfless. Such selflessness is love. And God is love.

Saturday, November 08, 2008


A kid from my church ditched school this week. He told me about it on Facebook. In his mind, for reasons I won't bother to go into, it was entirely justified; I, on the other hand, was dumbstruck. I never had such moxie when I was in high school.

We got to talking about rules and regimens and whatnot, and because this particular kid has a particularly sharp wit and thoughtful streak, we came up with a new system of government that honors both his fondness of anarchy--a state of no oppression, or something like that--and his and my and, let's face it, all our desires to reign supreme over our own existence. We each have this shadow streak in which we want to be in charge and yet we just want everyone to get along. I think our epiphany came when my friend said something like "If I were in charge, nobody would be in charge."

We named our new system tyranarchism and defined it as a paradoxical form of government accommodating a universal desire for tyrannical rule without consequence; an anarchy in which everyone, from a genius like Barack Obama to a weirdo like Tyra Banks, rules his or her own empire of one.

I recently rewatched the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which may, come to think of it, actually be an experiment in tyranarchy. And Ferris reminds me, and each one of us, even as he launches his own tyranarchistic campaign, that systems ultimately collapse on themselves in a paradoxical comment that does just that:

Isms in my opinion are not good. A person shouldn’t believe in an ism; he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon: "I don’t believe in Beatles; I just believe in me." Good point there; after all, he was the Walrus.

Or we could read the second half of the book of Judges, which bookends tales of horrible, disastrous self-government with the simple, tyranarchist refrain: "In those days there was no king; everyone did as he saw fit." Good point there; after all, it's the Bible.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

This Is How to Save a Life

A friend of mine, Tony, is a bit of a nut about people who are homeless. Some time ago he was looking for a way of being more involved in our community and started helping with Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS). Now every week he drops by the local shelter to see if they need help, and twice a month he organizes a team of people to serve meals, clean up and get to know the homeless guests.

One of those two times a month is brand new, as of last night. Until yesterday there weren't enough volunteers to staff the site for the Tuesday/Wednesday of the month. Tony decided that wasn't OK, so he got a bunch of us together and opened the site. This morning he told us that last night one of the guests had a heart attack; they had to pull out the defibrillator and call in an ambulance. To date it's Tony's wildest PADS experience. I wasn't there; I came for breakfast instead: pancakes and precooked bacon. Not nearly so remarkable.

Tonight Tony e-mailed everybody with an arresting realization: the site almost didn't open because there weren't people to staff it, and if the site hadn't been open, a man would have had a heart attack alone, on the street, with no ready access to emergency medical care. Last night a few people sharing a couple of hours with a small crowd of homeless folks were the difference between one man's life and death. Tony wouldn't say this himself, so I'll say it: by getting people together, Tony saved someone's life. So here's to Tony. May his tribe increase.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Anne Lamott Is a Genius, Part Two: Or, Why Who We Vote For Doesn't Matter

Further thoughts from Anne Lamott's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, this time on a Christian's relation to a president. I had heard ahead of time how much of this book was a rant on George W. Bush, but it still caught me off guard. Today, however, roughly half of the country will feel about Barack Obama or John McCain similarly to how L. feels about W. So we might as well spare ourselves some despair and ennui, and give some thought to some of the genius's more humble thoughts:

I know the world is loved by God, as are all of its people, but it is much easier to believe that God hates or disapproves of or punishes the same people I do, because these thoughts are what is going on inside me much of the time. . . .

To be honest, I am never going to get anywhere with this president. But Jesus kept harping on forgiveness and loving one's enemies, so I decided to try. WHy couldn't Jesus comand us to obsess about everything, to try to control and manipulate people, to try not to breathe at all, or to pay attention, stomp away to brood when people annoy us, and then eat a big bag of Hershey's Kisses in bed?

Maybe in some translations, he does. . . .

Loving your enemies was nonnegotiable. It meant trying to respect them, it meant identifying with their humanity and weaknesses. It didn't mean unconditional acceptance of their crazy behavior. They were still accountable for the atrocities they'd perpetrated, as you were accountable for yours. But you worked at doing better, at loving them, for the profoundest spiritual reason: You were trying not to make things worse.

Day 1 went pretty well. All things considered.

My friend Lisa Rieck has posted some ideas for how to pray for the new president at Strangely Dim. I encourage you to check them out. Thank you, and God bless the United States of America.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Anne Lamott Is a Genius

The thing that most consistently can rob me of sleep, beyond the temporary pressures of work or the momentary turbulences of relationships, is the clear and present danger of aging, to be defeated only by death, to be defeated only by resurrection. The thought of aging will take me abruptly from being nearly asleep to wide awake. It's the non sequitur I most dread when my mind and body are supposedly at rest.

The Heidelberg Catechism's reminder that whether in life or in death I belong to Christ offers some comfort, but only some. Creedal assurances, I guess, don't fully address my existential angst. I'm too good a worrier for that. But sometimes I'll read something that is less creedal and more folksy, something that for whatever reason puts my soul temporarily at rest. Today that creedal surrogate is Anne Lamott, in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. She's got a few years on me, enough to anticipate some of the angst on my immediate horizon, but she's not so far out in front or so ethereal an author that I can't feel in my bones the comfort she takes in her own creaking. She doesn't replace creedal assurances for me, but she does bring them down to earth for a little while. The following did so for me today; maybe today or tomorrow or the next it'll do something similar for you:

Age has given me what I was looking for my entire life--it has given me me. It has provided time and experience and time-tested friends who have helped me step into the shape that was waiting for me. I fit into me now. . . .

Left to my own devices, would I trade this for firm thighs, fewer wrinkles, a better memory?

You bet I would. That is why it's such a blessing that I'm not left to my own devices. . . .

I know two things now that I didn't know at thirty. That when we get to heaven, we will discover that the appearance of our butts and our skin was 127th on the list of what mattered on this earth. And that I am not going to live forever. Knowing these things has set me free.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Hail the Good News

The story goes that a student once asked legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, out of the blue, what he thought of a new book by fellow poet Robert Creeley. Ginsberg responded in a way that disregarded the student´s obvious disdain for the book: "Whatever Bob´s doing, I´m for him."

I like the vibe of that statement; Ginsberg didn´t endorse a book of poems he hadn´t
read, but neither did he give credence to some random critic´s random negativity. In a move that was at once deftly political and defiantly apolitical, Ginsberg declared himself as for a person, regardless of their product. It´s probably as Jesus-y a statement as a legendary Beat poet can get.

I think it´s a fair critique of our statements about this or that particular thinker
whether, regardless of our opinion of their positions, we leave room to still be for them as people. It´s the rough terrain that Democratic senators have had to traverse this year, as they´ve critiqued longtime friend and frequent ally John McCain as the opponent of their guy, Barack Obama.

McCain himself has had to walk similarly precariously, making the case that the United States shouldn't take a risk on a candidate who isn´t ready to be president, without implying that Obama is effectively incompetent-just in case he wins. That´s not a matter of his own political equivocation but rather a question of the national interest: if half the country thinks that our new president is dangerously unqualified, no one benefits and everyone suffers.

Other arenas, I think, could take a lesson from such political parsing of language-particularly in ongoing conversations about Christian theology. I've run across a number of people lately who are worn down from all the flak they take for asking the questions they're asking, for entertaining the notions they're entertaining. It's one thing to challenge a person's thinking; it's quite another to pass judgment on them, to declare them to their face or to a roomful of people--not sure which is worse--anathema.

Theological controversy as much as anything requires careful management, so that in our attempts to throw out bad bathwater we don´t lose our babies, or that in our attempts to prune back a flawed system we don´t hack off a limb we´re going to need later. At the end of each day we should not have pummeled one another so ferociously that we can´t kiss and make up and even look forward to our next round of partisan bickering.

It's hard to have people against you. Or so I'm told; I've never really suffered significantly for my opinions. If ever I do, however, I'll experience people's opposition against a backdrop of confidence--not in myself, but in grace that's rightly described at least in part as unmerited favor.

In writing Deliver Us from Me-Ville I took great encouragement from Dietrich Bonhoeffer´s description of Christ as pro-me. It´s a nice foundation on which to build a critique of self-absorption: Jesus is for us enough to become us and join with us, then separate our sin from us and die for us, then resurrect to us and go on ahead of us to prepare a place for us.

Today the Emergent Village announced its new direction as a network of networks. Emergent has had to walk this ginger path since its inception, and it's also had to carry the burden of people who have opposed the ideas that come out of its generative friendships enough to oppose the people that populate the Village. I've been impressed with the Emergent Village, as much as anything, for their capacity--by and large and with occasional exceptions--to keep turning their other cheek when someone throws stones at them. So at the end of Emergent Village as we know it and the beginning of Emergent Village as we don't yet know it, and most particularly on the last day of Tony Jones's tenure as national coordinator, let me paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, unknowingly echoing Jesus: "Whatever EV´s doing-right or wrong, to be judged and discarded or to be embraced and celebrated-I´m for them."

A Hater Is a Heart That's All Mixed Up

Some of the authors I interact with are, as a consequence of the work they do, regularly confronted by angry critics. Often these critics haven't even met my author friends; they've just heard second- or third-hand about something my friends have supposedly said or done, and they just go off. One of my friends calls these folks haters. And last week he bought a shirt that reads "I [Heart] Haters."

Another friend of mine, this one a computer programmer, has a slogan that keeps him sane: "No matter what you do, there will be critics." I think there's a distinction between critics and haters that's some mix of a degree distinction and an ethical gulf: critics critique, based on an opinion that is at least assumed to be informed; haters hate, based on almost nothing.

Critique is a healthy exercise, I think, a corrective against the self's intuitive logic and self-satisfaction. That doesn't mean that critique isn't occasionally annoying, of course; critique causes us to reconsider what we're doing regardless of how much prior consideration we've already given it, and so it can introduce a high level of inefficiency into our best-laid plans. But a world without critique would probably not be a very enjoyable world. The book of Judges prefaced some truly awful stories with the line "Everyone did what was right in their own eyes."

Haters, however, append or even supplant legitimate critique with a layer of accusation and vitriol. People who offend a hater have sinned against them, in their eyes, and they deserve to be punished for it--sometimes through public humiliation, sometimes through loud, sputtering rebuke. Haters allow their rage to overwhelm their intellect, and so even reasonable concerns for truthfulness, integrity, precision, whatever the complaint may be, are replaced with venom. Haters make even the ridiculous look smart by comparison.

Better than hate is silence. Proverbs 17:28 tells us that "even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent"; Ecclesiastes 3:17 calls for "a time to be silent and a time to speak." The best rebuke is a silent rebuke, because the air is filled with the uncomfortable recognition that whatever was said has at least not been received and has perhaps been rejected.

Better than silence, in many cases, is good humor. G. K. Chesterton acknowledges that "the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable." So he encourages us to "be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air." If someone is wrong, even painfully wrong, what is right will eventually reveal itself.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Patience Is an Asset

I work in a Christian workplace. You can impose your own definition of "Christian workplace," but at the very least it means that my company is eligible to participate in the annual "Best Christian Workplaces" survey. We place in the top three every time we take participate, which leads me to suspect that we may just be the best Christian workplace ever. I took that survey yesterday, because my boss's boss asked me too, and I'm one of the best Christian employees ever.

Anyhoo, the survey asked a battery of questions about compensation packages, employee empowerment, responsibility and responsiveness of management, and workplace spirituality. We rank the workplace on a scale of one to five, with five being best. Questions about spirituality are among the more difficult to address, but one question in that category gave me pause, something along the lines of "Employees at my company exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, kindness, etc.)."

What caught my attention is not that some of the fruit of the Holy Spirit's sanctifying work in our lives were relegated to an "etc." It's that before we even get to the "etc." we skip right over the fourth fruit listed in the sequence of Galatians 5:22-23: patience.

I know the fruit of the Spirit by heart because I learned a song about them during a Vacation Bible School about a decade ago, and it's one of those songs that never exits your head: "You've gotta have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, . . . goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, 'cause this is the fruit of the Spirit." Without "patience," the song falls apart; the rhythm is all off.

I think it's funny that the "Best Christian Workplaces" survey skips right over "patience" in its attempt to determine which Christian workplace is, in fact, the best. It seems to assume that patience, while certainly a spiritual fruit, isn't a marketplace asset.

However, I submit that without patience, the rhythm is all off. Without patience we don't relate to one another in constructive ways. We don't allow for professional development in the young and the new, and we don't allow for the slower but wiser methods of the long-tenured. Without patience we turn inward and elevate our private agenda against the interests of others and the overarching interests of the organization. Patience isn't just a fruit of the Spirit, it's a virtue, and as such it's a corporate asset--at least in a Christian workplace that aspires to be the best.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

How Would Jesus Surf? Or, Why Should the Devil Have All the Bad TV?

Once upon a time my siblings and I were regaling some long-lost cousins with stories of our wild youth. We were proud of our waywardness, which involved--for the most part--driving around Des Moines, Iowa, and occasionally drinking beverages we were too young to drink. When we finished our bragging session, our cousins took their cue and shared some of their exploits, which involved--among other things--conspiring with two strippers and a bouncer from my cousin-in-law's club to appear on the Jerry Springer Show, where they faked a fight and his eyeball temporarily popped out of its socket. Then we watched the tape, and I became more fully aware of my own mediocrity.

I have a similar visceral reaction when I read Nadia Bolz-Weber, author of one of my favorite blogs--The Sarcastic Lutheran (there's a link in my sidebar)--and now of the book Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television. I like to fancy myself a fairly sarcastic person, but when I read Nadia I learn my limits, and I simply sit at the feet of a master.

Salvation on the Small Screen? belongs in a relatively recent category of what might be called first-person documentary, which includes films such as Super-Size Me and books such as The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Year of Living Biblically. In such works the investigator is the protagonist, and the work that ensues weaves back and forth between memoir and some other discipline--journalism, perhaps, or in this case, theology. It's like a literary form of extreme sport or reality TV. The challenge Bolz-Weber accepts in this case is to watch Christian television--the kind you're encouraged to lay your hands on--for twenty-four straight hours, journaling the experience as she goes. As a protagonist she earns our sympathy right off the bat by sharing the calamity of losing her notes and having to repeat the entire experiment, so while her observations chronicle twenty-four hours, they actually reflect forty-eight, bless her heart.

For such a project you need a distinct skill set--someone who can go the distance, for one, but also someone who can entertain and edify her audience as she goes. Salvation on the Small Screen? thus qualifies as another in my recently coined category of sanctitainment. (Trademark pending.) Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor currently finishing her M.Div. and heading up a church plant in Colorado. She's also a former stand-up comedian, which only helps the book. Beyond these particular skills is the need for a particular proximal connection to the subject matter, and Bolz-Weber's is almost ideal: raised in the conservative evangelical tradition that birthed the kind of television she's filling her mind with, she now rests solidly in the Lutheran tradition, which is theologically about as far removed from the tradition of her childhood as she can get. All the stars seem aligned on this one.

Bolz-Weber is bolstered in her project by the participation of friends, both far (she receives occasional text messages of solidarity from various parts of the country) and near. Guests volunteer for shifts throughout the twenty-four hour period, with diverse backgrounds ranging from virtually no contact with conservative evangelicalism to, in the unique case of her parent, an ongoing participation in that tradition. I would have liked to see more conservatives participate in the project as much to allow for the possibility that we might find some reason to show some sympathy for the devils who create this programming, as to add some greater depth to some of the dialogue.

It's here, in fact, that I must confess my limits. I like sarcasm to a fault, if you ask some of my friends and loved ones, but the problem with sarcasm is that occasionally your delight gives way to your discomfort. Bolz-Weber is confronting not just the very troubling theology that comes across on these shows, not just the psychological manipulation that takes place with each host's interaction with the viewer; she's also confronting the jargon and cultural patterns of evangelicals, of which I am one. So while I feel virtually no identification with the likes of Benny Hinn, I cringe just a bit when she off-handedly describes a key element of my weekly worship experience as "vapid."

Such are the constraints of sarcasm, and everyone--including Bolz-Weber--affected by them. Her inner conflict is increasingly evident as the day progresses, hitting a high point when her evangelical parents join her for "Behind the Scenes," a presentation of the network's inner workings and corporate mission. Bolz-Weber feels

uncomfortable as hell. This song they are singing is more reminiscent of my Church of Christ upbringing than anything else I've seen on TBN, and I can't believe it's during the hour my parents are here. . . . Do I roll my eyes and make a biting comment about the TBN audience and set design, or do I give in and sing the last refrain with my mom? Answer: I get up and take a shower.

This is an uncomfortable book, but one that bears (and rewards) reading. Bolz-Weber is always surprisingly respectful and circumspect, looking for nice things to say when possible and confessing her own finitude and fallenness along the way. It's also painfully funny throughout. The theological reflection thins out toward the end--a combination of factors such as the broadcast lineup, the backgrounds of the guests and the sleep deprivation--but the book ends perfectly, with a semiconscious Bolz-Weber being swept along by a cartoon about Jonah, narrated by, of course, Charlton Heston.

You will love most of this book and hate parts of it, just as you would probably, like Bolz-Weber, hate most of TBN's programming and yet find yourself moved to tears by the occasional bit of it. This is the world we inhabit; this is the faith we embrace, one in which we remain simultaneously sinners and saints, and we have to deal with that in ourselves and in one another. God save us all.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Too Big to Fail Me Now

To say I've grown disenchanted with the stock market would be inaccurate, since I never found it particularly enchanting in the first case. But I have been struck by how disillusioning the financial crisis has been; of all the things we've learned to distrust, we should by now be able to trust a bank, shouldn't we?

But we do trust banks--or at least we put our trust in banks, by which I mean we put our money in banks. I've been running across the concept of idolatry quite a lot lately, and I'd been wondering why--have I gotten too obsessed with Facebook? Too distracted by the sales performance of Deliver Us from Me-Ville? Perhaps, but I think being attuned to the concept of idolatry has made me watch this market meltdown a little differently.

Today's sermon from my pastor had to do with the Lord's prayer, especially as pertains to the market. He focused on the phrase "Give us this day our daily bread," which was a good reminder that we trust God, not material institutions, to be our provider. But the notion is so abstract--trusting an unseen God for our everyday needs--that I thought it would make more sense contrasted with another abstract would-be provider. What I learned in the process is that I'd rather be the kind of person whose well-being depends on God than one whose well-being was staked to stocks.

Our Market, which art on Wall Street--
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy dividends come,
Thy interests be done
Throughout the earth, as it is on Wall Street.
Give us this day our daily accrued interest.
Forgive us our debts,
Even as we exploit our debtors.
And lead us not into panic-selling
but deliver us the goods.

And now, for the extended ending:

For yours is our kingdom,
Yours is our power,
Yours is our glory now and forever.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Blessing on Your Head

I'm in Atlanta for a conference. I love Atlanta for completely irrational reasons: I used to watch Atlanta-based television when I was a kid (including Atlanta-based professional wrestling); Georgia is home to R.E.M., the Indigo Girls, Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young and a rich civil rights history; Atlanta houses Emory University, former teaching home of one of my favorite writers ever, Brian Mahan of Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose; Atlanta is an icon of the lazy South--lazy in the best sense, the sense of being relaxed and fully present. I love Atlanta for all kinds of reasons.

That being said, virtually every direct experience of Atlanta that I've had has been filled with frustration--mostly due to the challenges of getting around. Last night I missed out on an entire evening's worth of activities with the InterVarsity chapter at Emory University because I couldn't find the entrance to the campus. In past trips here I've gotten lost at night in the dark, lost in the maze of streets named for peach trees, lost on my way to the airport. In Atlanta I am, more often than not, completely bewildered.

So this morning a high-school friend of mine sent me a message via Facebook: "Hope you don't get too lost today." It strikes me that this would be a good daily blessing regardless of where we are, because regardless of where we are, it's easy to get lost--lost in our own heads, lost in our vain pursuit of material success, lost in our complex web of relationships, lost in the competing claims on our time and attention. I've been an evangelical long enough to get a little weary of the word lost, but this year it's gained some fresh traction with me, because lostness is so often a real experience. This world loses people: you have only to look under overpasses and beyond your own continent to realize that. This world also loses people who almost never move--we get disoriented right in our own psychic space. We are too often, to paraphrase one wise man, "like sheep without a shepherd."

So I hope I don't get lost today, and I hope the same for you. A blessing on your head.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

"Truly Swell"

Deliver Us from Me-Ville got a nice review in Worship Leader Magazine this month. Here's an excerpt:

Zimmerman uses history, theology, philosophy and culture to make this book astonishingly refreshing and helpful. . . . You will find yourself identifying with characters that used to only be words on a page, and the sense of community that Zimmerman draws us to will suddenly extend past our home and into the First Century. His words truly swell up contemplation in our hearts. . . . He is a compelling storyteller as well as an intelligent theologian whose words will deliver us all from the small village of pride we have each built for ourselves.

I'm blushing. I also read of a pastor who's thinking about the personal exercises in the book ("escape routes") in the context of the mission of the church, and of a woman who's reading the book with her spiritual director. In the interest of fairness, I've also been told by at least one person that the book made her feel guilty. I'd love to hear from you about how you've interacted with the book--either positively or negatively. You can post a comment here, write on the wall of the Facebook group, or e-mail me. Take your best shot; I can take it.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Me-Ville

I guess I should have had Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove write my cover copy. Here's echos of Deliver Us from Me-Ville tucked away in the early pages of their new book together, Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers:

The prayer Jesus taught us is a prayer of community and reconciliation, belonging to a new kind of people who have left the land of “me.” This new humanity is an exodus people who have entered a promised land of “we,” to whom “I” and “mine” and “my” are things of the past. Here our God teaches us the interconnectedness of grace and liberation in a new social order. Here we are judged inasmuch as we judge, and forgiven as we forgive.

To my knowledge neither of them has read my book, so consider this a shameless hitching of my wagon to their star. Shane and Jonathan, give me a shout and I'll send you a free book for your trouble.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Dinner and a Movie

When it comes to anniversary dinners, would you say it's better to take your spouse here or here? I'm asking because I have a really bad track record with such decisions, and I made such a decision last night, having been a little worn down and out of it after a three-day work retreat and a three-hour drive, and both of these were finalist options for dinner, and I'm hoping that I made the right choice.

For the record, we went here, then we went to a movie, Fireproof, which is about marriage and Jesus and whatnot, and which I will not blog about. A week prior we went to see the musical Wicked, which was our big treat to ourselves for this anniversary, and which made for a nice date in and of itself. Suffice it to say, it's good to be married, and it's good to be home.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

What's So Funny About Faith, Hope & Love?

Just before I sat down to read a chapter from Churched, the new book by Matthew Paul Turner, I heard a radio report on secret tapes from inside Wahabi mosques in the United States. Muslim women were teaching one another that the Quran demands that adulterers, among other offenders, be stoned to death.

I had the sneaking suspicion that these women were being taken out of context and willfully misinterpreted. Secret tapings of Bible studies on any given day, I'm convinced, could yield a very similar expose about Christianity in the United States; people in the Bible get killed by stoning for any number of offenses, including mouthing off to their parents or even in some cases for being from the wrong tribe.

Meanwhile, in a country with substantial Muslim and Christian populations, and with rampant adultery and child-parent back-talk, stonings are almost nonexistent. While I'm sure there are acts of violence in the United States motivated by religion, it seems to me that for the most part such readings of sacred texts boil down to little more than talk.

I don't care for this kind of fear-mongering; I think it's an unfair and unproductive way of interpreting an unfamiliar culture. There's another way--a better way, I think--to do it: by being funny. This is the approach Turner takes in Churched.

Full disclosure: Turner is a "friend" of mine, even though we've never met. We run in similar virtual circles on Facebook and attend some of the same conferences in professional American Christianity. He read my review of Jesus Laughed by Robert Darden, posted here last month and on Burnside Writers Collective a few weeks later, and asked me to review Churched for him, which I was happy to do. He sent me an advance reader copy, so I don't have the final text, which means that any quotes I post here may not match up with your copy of the book.

Turner is a humorist, and he's a Christian of the evangelical sort, who grew up in the fundamentalist tradition in America. I did not; I grew up Catholic and migrated to evangelical Protestantism as an adult. So I read this book as a sympathetic outsider; it's painfully hard for me to believe that such churches exist, even though I've visited some. Turner writes the book as a sympathetic though critical insider, someone who has noticed the nuttiness that attends fundamentalism, who has moved into a post-fundamentalist adulthood but can't shake the family ties that bind him to his history. I've read some memoirs from people with similar upbringings to his that served as a kind of cathartic purge; the adult memoirist justifies his or her current convictions by sacrificing his or her upbringing on the altar of ridicule. That's not Turner's way; he honors the ethics of humor that Darden spells out in Jesus Laughed.

We chuckle with Turner, and presumably with some of his family and friends who grew up with him, over the silly antics of Pastor Nolan--from his much-hyped annual boxing match with the devil to his intricate theology of male haircuts. We groan at the strained efforts of teachers at the church school to relate every lesson, whatever the subject, to the lordship of Christ and the fallenness of the human race. We cringe as churchfolk go public with their faith, manipulating children and cajoling adults into admitting that the fundamentalists are right, that everyone else is wrong.

There's a sadness to Turner's humor that emerges late in the book, however. Maybe it's the inevitable disillusionment of adolescence or the inevitable breakdown of finite humans striving for a contrived perfection in a semi-public setting. Turner makes occasional vague references to seeking therapy that would seem like jokes if they didn't seem like foreshadowing, and the moment when he discovers that the pastor and elders are conspiring to make the congregation think they're converting more people than they are--cooking the conversion books, so to speak--is almost tragic.

I can't review this memoir without drawing particular attention to Turner's coloring book, both because I'm such a geek about such things and because it's among the more biting passages in the book. Here he uses the unconvential colors of green and orange to fill in Jesus' robes.

"I'm coloring Jesus the same colors as Aqua Man," I said, looking down at my paper. It made perfect sense for Jesus to look like Aqua Man. . . . I was pretty sure his miracles didn't happen telepathically, but he certainly used some kind of super-hero strength to make those fish obey him. . . .

"Just make sure you leave his face white, okay?"

"I was going to." Everybody in the class knew Jesus was white.

Only someone from the inside, with a lingering conviction that the Pastor Nolans and Mrs. Snovers that populate his stories share a common humanity with readers from the outside, could tuck such a scandalous observation into such a book and keep us interested in his characters. They are, like all of us I suspect, often innocent in their own guilt. They remain blissfully unaware of the power they sometimes yield and the harm they sometimes do. Turner is a good humorist in part because he's a good human being, and Churched is a good book because of Turner's conviction: sometimes the talk of faith doesn't live up to the power of the gospel.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

No Mottos, Please, I'm Gen X

I heard a piece this morning on NPR ("Oooh, you're sooooo smarrrt!") about being British, which apparently is a question that generates a certain amount of existential angst these days. Earlier this year, in fact, Parliament deliberated how it could foster a more cohesive British identity among its citizens. The immediate reaction of the general populace was derision, mockery and irony; a London newspaper ran a "British slogan" contest, and among the winning entries were "At least we're not French" and "No mottos, please, we're British."

The Brits, it seems, defy categorization--not in the sense that it's difficult to categorize them but in the sense that they don't like it. But in a global economy that's driven by brands and slogans, ambiguity is a death sentence. But even more pressing, in the mind of British government, is the notion that by not sharing a common identity, Britons don't identify with one another--which means that immigrant communities remain isolated from the established mainstream, and more generally the general populace slowly stops concerning itself with one another. That's the fear, at least.

Around the same time I heard this discussion on NPR ("Yeah, we heard you the first time, Mr. Smartypants") I was flipping through a manuscript about the approach to church and Christian practice that developed in the United States and its distinctiveness from its European ancestors. Not to blow the punchline, but U.S. Christianity foreswore the state-church, hierarchical and tenured church organization of Europe in favor of a more entrepreneurial, democratic, frontiered organization--a development that had the advantages of a more involved laity but the disadvantage of an effective divorce from church history. The American church is less interested in cohesion with its larger, broader context, perhaps, than Britons are with their Britishness. The concern that emerges out of this development is that the Christian church, which ought to be transnational, dis-integrates into isolated tribes, eventually fading from view altogether. That's the fear, at least.

As if this brand confusion wasn't enough, I recently heard a presentation that detailed the differences between how boomers (old people), Gen Xers (really cool people like me) and Millennials (all those punk kids that are stealing all my office mojo) conduct themselves in the workforce--what expectations they bring and how they express their ambition or dissatisfaction. Basically, the younger you are, the more you crave context; and yet the younger you are, the more resistant you are to being categorized. We want to know how we fit, but we don't want to be told where we fit. That's what I call the horns of a dilemma.

Fears and dilemmas; something we all have in common, I suppose. I haven't drawn any conclusions about all this, but when I notice convergence, I like to acknowledge it. Any wisdom for our friends who are British? or Gen X? or boomers? or Millennials? or Christian? Anything?

Monday, September 15, 2008

This Is a Book About Love

For whatever reason, it never occurred to me to write book reviews on Loud Time till this past month. And in fact, I probably wouldn't have done it at all had I not stumbled upon an invitation to review a book in exchange for a free copy of that book. Suddenly I find myself with a stack of books to review, some out of the kindness of my heart, some as a kind of quid pro quo--I'll review yours if you review mine.

This is a review of the latter sort. I stumbled across Larry Shallenberger by accident; he's a regular contributor to Burnside Writers Collective (one of my favorite online magazines) and the husband of someone I went to college with. As it happens, we share a publisher, so we got to talking and decided to review one another's books. I fear that I got the better deal out of the arrangement, as in addition to being a regular contributor to BWC, Larry is on the pastoral staff of a megachurch and so influences tens of hundreds of readers, while I write a blog that is read by my mom. So Mom, have I got a book for you.

Divine Intention is a book about love. It says so right in the book, in one of the more delightfully audacious printed statements I've read in a long time. You'd not necessarily figure out right away that this is a book about love--Larry buries the lead on page 46, and his publisher buries this theme under the perhaps more saleable veneer of a book on the ancient church in contemporary perspective, or, in other words, a book on the book of Acts. But Larry effectively makes the case that the book of Acts itself is a book about love, and if this is a book about that, then this is a book about that too.

Larry takes us through the book of Acts, not systematically but episodically, looking at passages that show a particular act of divine intervention. Acts has a lot of them, from the Day of Pentecost that sent the church out into Judea, to the great persecution that martyred Stephen but sent Philip into Samaria, to the conversion of Paul that ushered the church further out to the ends of the earth. This is not new news; Acts is a well-traveled New Testament book by exegetes of every stripe. Larry is a keen reader of key texts, however, and catches things that I, for one, failed to notice even after he stuck the passage right in front of me. He takes us on an interesting interpretive turn by asking why God intervenes in Acts where he does. As it happens, God intervenes because he is relational, and the relationship of God to his people demands it.

So Jesus warns his followers to expect the Spirit, and on Pentecost the Spirit comes. Stephen rehearses the story of Israel and faces his martyrdom with the assurance that his God is with him, that suffering and even death are not the end of his story. Philip and Peter hear from God that he loves them and that he loves people they might not otherwise think to love. Paul hears from God and is given a dramatic life change and a sober calling. Paul hears again from God in the wake of a strained relationship and finds renewed strength for his mission. God keeps showing that he is there, keeps showing his love for his people.

This is a more radical take on Acts than Larry's gentle writing voice would suggest. He has to be gentle; Larry is a pastor, and he's had to deal with some particularly icky stuff in a few of the churches he's served. He handles these troubles delicately and respectfully--pastorally, I suppose you could say. He rarely strays from his pastoral deckings, to be frank, in the preponderance of talk of "the abundant life," in the tight outline that steers the book, even in the fictitious narratives that lead each chapter.

The character Jonah, a struggling young pastor, is written in the first person as he recounts a monthly encounter with two long-lost friends, each of whom has drifted away from the joy of their earlier life in Christ. This itself is a nice metaphor for the way we so often approach the book of Acts: when we're disillusioned with the church of the twenty-first century--whether for its world-shaking scandals or its petty annoyances--we revisit Acts as a reminder of what the Christian faith once was and perhaps ought to be. But because Jonah is a pastor, and frankly because Jonah is Larry, he can't really haul back and freak out on anybody in the way that I occasionally wished he would. The pastoral garb is a bit of a straitjacket on the energy of the book--probably an appropriate straitjacket; Lord knows I'm not called to the pastorate. I'm also, if I may be so bold, mystified why the fictional narrative, which seems to be working its way to an inevitable resolution, never resolves. Sometimes I think we all need to take a short break--just a short one, mind you--from Donald Miller.

Larry's pastoral reserve notwithstanding, the book is audacious in the way good books ought to be audacious. Right there in the introduction, in the roman-numeral pages so that the heresy-hunters won't be offended by it, is an audacious confession followed by an audacious idea:

Love is the pinnacle of Christian teaching. However, the church has historically evaluated its biblical teachers with a yardstick of doctrinal purity. Little attention has been given to whether or not the teaching inspires greater love in the teaching's listeners. Historically, heretics have been identified by their corrupted ideas. However, if we take Paul seriously, perhaps heresy should rather be measured in terms of love.

What's good for Paul is good for the book of Acts, a love story from start to finish. It's good for us today as well, Larry goes on to show, as we find in Acts not a checklist for being a good Christian but signs and wonders from God that show us how to live well and prepare us for the cost of discipleship--which is to say, they show us how to love.


I would just like to acknowledge that I used the word audacious four times in one paragraph above, which was on purpose, despite the obvious arguments against such an obnoxious repetition.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

N. T. Wright Is a Genius

For some reason, I regularly return to the theological question of the problem of suffering. I myself have led a largely suffering-free life, and I live in the suburbs, where the world's suffering is largely kept from view, only occasionally trotted out on the news as a reminder that we're better off never leaving--even for a little bit.

So you'd think that I, and with me all the millions of folks like me who suffer lightly, wouldn't waste a lot of mental energy worrying about such things. But I do, and many others do as well. And the bad news, I keep discovering and rediscovering, is that there's no answer immediately apparent that will fully satisfy our occasional bouts of curiosity, that will adequately answer the question "Why do people suffer?"

The problem then becomes to answer it for ourselves. And often such solutions do more harm than good. This morning I read from N. T. Wright's biblical commentary John for Everyone, specifically his engagement with the story of a man born blind, then healed by Jesus. This is two stories, to tell the truth: a story of Jesus doing something miraculous, to be sure, but also a story of all kinds of people proving their ignorance, their arrogance. I quote Wright at length:

If something in the world seems'unfair', but if you believe in a God who is both all-powerful, all-loving and all-fair, one way of getting around the problem is to say that it only seems 'unfair', but actually isn't. There was after all some secret sin being punished. This is a comfortable sort of thing to believe if you happen to be well-off, well fed and healthy in body and mind. (In other words, if nobody can accuse you of some secret previous sin.)

Jesus firmly resists any such analysis of how the world is ordered. The world is stranger than that, and darker than that, and the light of God's powerful, loving justice shines more brightly than that. . . .

Good things often happen as a result of good actions (kindness produces gratitude), and bad things often happen through bad actions (drunkenness causes car accidents). But this isn't inevitable. Kindness is sometimes scorned. Some drunkards always get away with it. . . .

At the start of the book of Genesis, God was faced with chaos. He didn't waste time describing the chaos, analysing it or discussing whose fault it was. Instead, he created light; and, following the light, a whole new world. . . .

New creation does happen. Healing does happen. Lives can be transformed. And the question then is the one they asked the man [born blind then healed by Jesus]: how did it happen? How does it happen?

The answer given throughout the gospel is, of course, 'through Jesus'.

That answer isn't really an answer, of course, for the formerly blind man or his skeptical audience or all of us who still occasionally can't sleep through the question of suffering. But it does turn the question on its head: Why do we want to know why? Why do we think we can figure out why? Will it ever be enough to simply trust God to take the chaos we're confronted with and make a transformed world out of it?

Looking back on that last paragraph, I recognize that even the attempt to agree with God by a well-intended, largely suffering-free suburban Christian such as myself comes off as trite, even insufferable. I think the best we can do in the face of suffering is to suffer alongside, to sit in silence with the suffering, and in the words of the patriarch Jacob, to wait for the Lord's deliverance.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Drug User Is a Person in My Neighborhood

Last week a young couple was arrested in my driveway. My wife and I interrupted our card game to watch it happen. What happened was this:

A red SUV was driving slowly back and forth along our street. This struck us as curious. Not long afterward a red SUV pulled into my driveway and between my house and my neighbor's house, effectively blocking us both from leaving. A woman neither of us knew hopped out of the red SUV and walked briskly up to our front door. I got up to answer the door as a police officer pulled into our driveway, effectively blocking the red SUV. The officer struck up a conversation with the woman and the man who had been driving the red SUV.

I will stop there for a moment because I find my reaction to this chain of events embarrassingly funny, in a sad sort of way. I live on a lightly trafficked, suburban residential street with lots of little kids from what my friend respectfully calls "lower middle class" families. We're a working-class suburban community in which the local paper's police blotter is generally a report of illegal parking and red-light running. Despite this atmosphere of utter normalcy, the sight of an unknown young woman pulling into my driveway and approaching my door filled me and my wife with a surprising burst of dread. What could she possibly want? What's going on? What kind of person so brazenly approaches the door of someone she doesn't even know?

I'm reminded of Bowling for Columbine, the documentary film that confronts the gun culture in America and suggests that it arises out of a vague but persistent fear of the Other. I liked the film because I don't like guns. But there I was, fighting bravely my vague but persistent fear of the Other. I would have answered the door, had the office not intervened, but my guard was way up.

Back to the story. The police officer chatted very calmly with the young couple for some time, occasionally reporting something into his two-way radio. Soon enough a second and then a third police car arrived on the scene. The couple was split up for separate interviews, the young man with the male officer, the young woman with the female officer, while the third officer pulled out what turned out to be an evidence kit. Not long afterward, first the young man and then the young women were searched and found to be in possession of heroin. They were placed in handcuffs and tucked into the backs of separate police cars, and a search of their red SUV yielded more heroin.

At one point one of the officers came to our door to advise us of what was happening, confirming that we didn't know the young couple and assuring us that the red SUV would be towed off our property very soon. We speculated that their red SUV was the same red SUV that had been driving slowly back and forth through our neighborhood, although after the police left one of my neighbors said it was definitely not the same red SUV.

Once the police had left the men of the neighborhood had an impromptu meeting in front of my house. There was no beer involved. I learned more about the history of the block in that fifteen minutes than I'd learned in seven years, including the tale of Jimmy Williams (not his real name), who had sold drugs for years two doors down from me in the house now owned by the Stoners (their real name, I swear). All the men laughed about the evening's events, and the two men who work from home reassured us (and, I think, warned us) that they were keeping an eye on the neighborhood and were wise to anything fishy that went on. Then we all went home.

With time I started to think about another young couple I met this summer, these two on the far side of their arrest for drug possession. I met them the morning after their first night ever at a homeless shelter. They were obviously scared, bewildered, unschooled in the ways and means of the homeless. Their family had rejected them and they didn't know what to do with themselves. I thought about that couple and I wondered whether I would see this evening's couple at the shelter next, and how I would welcome them there after being so afraid to welcome them at my home, and what kind of mercy I would offer them there after witnessing them receiving justice at home. I wondered what she would have said as I opened the door of my home to her, and what she'll say when I hand her the day's breakfast before she hits the streets.

I don't know really how to end a post like this. I find myself praying for those two couples, who are too young to anticipate the outcome of their decisions. I find myself praying for police officers whose very ordinary, suburban patrols are occasionally interrupted by incidents that require great courage and even greater wisdom. I find myself praying, which I suppose is good.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Eat, Pray, Love, Repeat

It's Labor Day, and to celebrate I watched Oprah. Her guest was Elizabeth Gilbert--not from TV's Little House on the Prairie; that's Melissa Gilbert. Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the enormously successful memoir of Eat Pray Love, which recounts her travels through Italy, India and Bali in search of transcendence. Apparently she found it, and now bazillions of middle-aged women are finding it too.

I haven't read Eat Pray Love, so I write this post only as an observer of the book's impact on Oprah's audience. I should also mention that I know a number of women who found the book enormously appealing, and I tend to trust their instincts and insights. So I'm not critiquing the book. What I want to comment on is the elevation of this memoir to the status of "Bible," to quote at least one woman in Oprah's audience. I'd like to argue that it's not Gilbert's achievement as some kind of zen master but her aptitude as a writer that makes this book so significant in the lives of so many people.

Not everyone, the author freely acknowledges, can make the kind of pilgrimage she made--four months in Italy, a similar jaunt to India and a final stint in Bali. She comes from the ranks of American aristocracy, and so can afford the luxury of the extravagant spiritual quest. Moreover, not all the ideas in the book that have captured the imaginations of so many readers are especially novel. Oprah devoted a fair bit of space to Gilbert's concept of building "a wall of no's" in order to protect space for reflection and self-discovery, but that idea fits very comfortably alongside countless voices arguing against a lifestyle of excess or busyness. And when pressed Gilbert defined God not by her own insight but by using the language of the Gnostics--a socially acceptable modern fundamentalism.

Gilbert actually struck me as quite humble. She sums up her book as a "ladder of words that I built to pull myself out of a very deep hole," and she is honored by the notion that her ladder of words is now enabling other women to facilitate their own escape. It's that ladder of words that, I think, is the unique contribution of this book.

Gilbert is a great writer in both an aesthetic and an ethical sense. She articulates things that other people struggle and fail to articulate, and so she establishes a solidarity with (and among) her readers that they might not otherwise have established. She also encapsulates exotic, sometimes arcane ideas into wearable language, so that her transcendent experience has an elegant earthiness to it. Above all, while many of us are fearful of the kind of honesty and transparency that a pilgrimage--both in the geographic and the spiritual sense--demands, she is willing to be an icon of honesty; she observes herself thinking and living in a way that emboldens her audience to observe first her and then themselves.

I'm troubled by some of the testimonials that came from Oprah's audience. This roomful of women had each absorbed the book, and those with the best transformative stories were given a microphone. Most of them went from reading the book to writing themselves a "bucket list." From the comfort of my family room, the overall message of these testimonials amounted to an embrace of self-absorption. The one testimonial that involved self-sacrifice--volunteer work on the gulf coast and in tribal Africa--gave equal attention to jumping out of a plane and running a half-marathon. Check, check, check and check.

These lifestyle changes were based on the author's (I think) very wise counsel to ask themselves each day "What do I really, really, really want." But that question doesn't confront us so much as it cajoles us. What if what someone really, really, really wants can only be achieved by the neglect or the exploitation of another? But even if I really, really, really want some ice cream, to then get some ice cream is not to achieve transcendence or even know myself better; it doesn't advance a quest but actually shuts it down prematurely. A second question I'm not sure that Gilbert offered or that her audience pursued, but that I think is perhaps more essential on the pilgrimage to the self and a more ethical posture toward the world is this: "Why do I really, really, really want it?"

Monday, August 25, 2008

Book Review: Jesus Laughed

It's tough to be funny. It's even tougher to be funny on paper, and to have that printed comedy survive round after round of editorial review and revision, and to have that printed comedy consistently serve a single thesis. And it's especially tough to be funny when writing a book about how being funny relates to the salvation of the world.

Robert Darden is a funny guy. And he's a tough guy: tough enough to take on just that challenge in his new book Jesus Laughed, published by Abingdon Press.

Full disclosure: I requested a copy of Jesus Laughed to review after the publisher made an open offer to bloggers. I requested it because (a) I enjoy reading about the idea of humor and (2) Darden endorsed both my books, and I wanted to return the favor. This is not an endorsement, however; this is a review, so I'm hoping you'll get the sense of this book--both its achievements and its shortcomings--and go on to support not only the author but the enterprise of reinvigorating the humor of the church.

One further advance confession: I'm an editor by trade, and so my review may be a wee bit wonkish from time to time. I'll be reviewing not only the writing, not only the ideas, but the way the book is organized. I apologize if that becomes laborious; please don't punish the author for the reviewer's peccadilloes.

I've not met Robert Darden, senior editor of the groundbreaking religious satire magazine The Wittenburg Door and professor of journalism at Baylor University in Texas. I imagine, however, that he writes like he talks. This book felt to me like a brisk walk through the multi-storied skyscraper I imagine the Wittenburg Door offices to be. I strain to keep in step as his monologue is punctuated with the dings of elevators and the screeches of photocopier paper jams. As each cubicle and conference room along this power-walk elicits a new thought, I realize that Darden is a busy man, and Jesus Laughed is an interruption in his busy day.

It's an interruption, but a manageable one. Darden's theology of humor is thoroughly integrated into his life: born out of his work and shaped by his ecclesiology and his interpretation of the history of the church. The church and its people have regularly done things that are laughable, sometimes bitterly so, and the Door and its editorial staff have done the church a service in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries to confront its earnestness, its selective memory, its conceit. The title Jesus Laughed suggests that this book will prove Jesus' sense of humor and, by extrapolation, God's sense of humor. But the book's real argument is only barely hinted at in the subtitle--"The Redemptive Power of Humor"--and better captured by the title of chapter five, a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche: "The redeemed ought to look more like it!"

There's a lot to work through before chapter five, however. The Bible is not as funny as Darden wants his readers to acknowledge--at least not as knee-slappingly, deep-breathingly, tear-jerkingly funny. Regardless of how amusing a particular scene from the Bible might be once we step away from it and think about it, in the momemt the Bible rarely causes a person to laugh. It's not surprising, given the way we read the Scriptures, that people have to be reminded that there's humor in it. The Bible is not a collection of Henny Youngman one-liners but a long, long, long story--a slow-cooked joke, like Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" or Andy Griffith's "What It Was, Was Football." I struggled my way through two chapters that function as a concordance of laughter in the Old and New Testaments; had I been the editor, these would have been one digested appendix.

That sounds gross--I apologize. What I meant was that these are two chapters of references with commentary and as such belong in a reference section, not in the discursive flow of the book. Besides, they're beside the point. The point of the book is that people need to be instructed to find the Bible funny because it's not written with the comedic principles we've come to expect. There's one punchline to the Bible--death put to death, the world in a wedding dress--and the incidental humor that appears along the way from "In the beginning" to "Amen; come Lord Jesus" is just that: incidental, tightly knit into its context.

Darden shines in his historical theology (chapters four through six) and his ethics of humor (chapters one and seven). Here, amid a shocking breadth of quoted material, we see the character of Christianity losing its laughter and taking on a sobriety, a severity, that seeds the clouds for a humanist backlash. I'm reminded of the scene in this summer's The Dark Knight, in which the disturbingly tragicomic Joker confronts the humorless Batman: "Why so serious?" Did the latter create the former? Did the church's neglect of the humor of God create the nihilistic ribaldry that passes for humor today? It's hard to say, but Batman acknowledges in the film that his city needs more light and less dark, and Darden ably defends the notion that the church needs to recapture a sense of humor that leans into Julian of Norwich's maxim: "All will be well, all will be well."

That's where the ethic of humor comes in. Darden isn't arguing for the church to be less holy in its effort to be more humorous; he's actually arguing that we emulate the humor of God. God's humor is not abusive, and so our humor should not be directed down toward the vulnerable other but toward the cult of power both above and within each of us. Good humor confronts ego and confesses finiteness. Here's a sample quote that shows Darden's wisdom on the matter:

Just as there is no limit to what can get done in a community when nobody cares who gets the credit, there is no limit to the joy you can spread if you are totally without ego. . . . If, like the tumbler or jester, you'll do or say anything without regard to making yourself look good or justified, then there is no limit to the happiness you can spread. (p. 71)

God's humor turns someone like Sarai's bitter laughter into the joy of Isaac, allows bitter Naomi to laugh at the days to come, turns mourning into dancing. God's humor is itself humorous because it's absurd in the way that miracles are absurd. When we consider humor a function of a redeemed ego, we find a new voice with which to share good news with the world, and we find new hope in the audacious yet common-sensical notion that Jesus, fully human and fully God, might have occasionally laughed.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...