Friday, May 30, 2008

Friends Are Friends Forever

I began my promotion of Deliver Us from Me-Ville this week with a trip to Indiana, where Thursday night I gave the baccalaureate address to a group of graduating high schoolers and Friday morning I appeared on the Harvest Show. I enjoyed both events, but I learned something about myself along the way: I am my most comfortable when I'm surrounded by friends and family.

I don't think that's an enormous epiphany; probably most of my friends and family could have told me that about myself. But it comes into stark relief when you're having makeup applied to your face by a perfect stranger, or when you're standing in front of a room full of people and you've only met two of them. Every offhand joke or comment was not so much an improvisation as it was a shot in the dark, and every bullet point was not so much a declaration as it was a conjecture.

Public speaking is necessarily unidirectional, I think. I tried on my way home to imagine a conversation involving one moderator and five hundred or more participants, but I couldn't quite imagine it. Perhaps I was too busy imagining a world without tollways and toll authorities, but I digress, which brings me to another point: public speaking doesn't nicely accommodate digression. The offhand comment takes the public speaker off script, and getting back on script in a timely manner becomes supremely important. There are cookies to be eaten, there is punch to be drunk.

The TV interview was more natural for me, despite the makeup and the dress-up, in part because of the give and take in the interview but also because just before we went on air the host remembered that we had met before, that I had appeared on the show to promote the first book. We had a good, brief chat about summer superhero movies that broke the ice and eased us into discussion about Me-Ville.

I look for friends wherever I go--either old friends to serve as a secure base in an unfamiliar environment, or new friends to ease the tension of social protocol. It's not surprising to me, then, that the song Friends has such ongoing appeal, that it may well have been performed at the commencement ceremony of these kids' parents twenty-some years ago even as it was performed last night. "A lifetime's not too long," the saying goes, "to live as friends."

On the way home I listened to Dennis Miller on his radio program, engaging in unrelenting, fast-paced banter with callers and guests, busily one-upping one another with arcane cultural references. Part of the show was a reflection on an interview earlier in the week Miller conducted with his old friend Norm McDonald, who took Miller's place as news anchor on Saturday Night Live. Miller commented that "it took me a while to figure out Norm's rhythm"--which is, I suppose, a pretty good assessment of the value of friendships that are approaching forever.

My thanks to Damon and Mandy, to Kelly and Stefan and Chuck and Mindy and Dave, for making me feel welcome and easing my anxiety about being in unfamiliar environments without pre-established secure bases. I hope you don't mind if I start calling you friends.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Spam of the Day

Who knew spam could be prophetic? Thursday night I received several copies of my new book, Deliver Us from Me-Ville (have I mentioned it?), in the mail. So Friday I was riding high, showing it off to my coworkers, gently caressing it in the privacy of my office, occasionally popping over to to see if it had hit #1 in the sales rankings yet (not yet), and generally feeling pretty self-satisfied. Along came an e-mail into my in-box with a very friendly and vaguely familiar name in the "from" column and one word in the "subject" column: "best."

I was feeling pretty best at the moment, I freely confess, so despite suspecting that this particular e-mail might not be from one of my old high school classmates but rather from some soulless spamming sleazebag, I defied logic, threw caution to the wind and opened the e-mail to read the following:

Your life is crap.

No links to online mortgage brokers, no recommendation of various low-cost Viagra substitutes, no Russian women looking for love, no promise of a bazillion pounds sterling if I do some foreign luminary a solid. Simply that brief, cutting message: Your life is crap.

OMG! LOL! It's been a long, long time since I've shared a spam of the day here at Loud Time, but that has to be my favorite spam ever. I'm reminded of a story I read once (I don't remember where; feel free to let us all know) of an emperor parading through the city on the way to his coronation. While crowds of his subjects shout loving, effusive praises as he passes by, he's accompanied by a jester, seated over his shoulder, whispering steadily in his ear, "Remember you are nothing."

Next week I'll be addressing a graduating class of high schoolers in Alexandria, Indiana, and I have two goals for the evening. I want to commend them on what is in fact a commendable moment: their completion of high school and their transition into adulthood. But part of me wants to play that jester because I think the jester has an important, even prophetic message: even on the day when we are most confident that we are all that, we are only us. Our best move is to find a quiet place and pray to God the words of Psalm 40 from the Message:

I'm nothing and have nothing:
make something of me.
You can do it; you've got what it takes--
but God, don't put it off.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Cult of 'Selfism'

Funny what you stumble across. I found in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary on Mark a discussion of Mark 8:34-38, in which the author, the late R. Alan Cole, expands in a footnote on his observation that "the Lord warns all the crowd, not just his professed disciples, that to follow him means to deny all natural inclinations and to 'shoulder one's stake'."

This is why the cult of 'selfism' (self-fulfilment, and the like), much favoured by the so-called 'me generation', is utterly foreign to the gospels, and, in particular to the teachings of Jesus. . . . There is no commendation of self-love [in Mark 12:31, for example], but only a realistic recognition that we do in fact always desire to promote our own good.

The notion that self-love is a default condition is pretty sensible to me; I'd only add that while self-love isn't commended, it isn't condemned either. Inordinate self-love, now that's another story. It's a tragic case when self-love is absent from a person; that person has been wounded, even defeated, by a world that has loved itself to the neglect of its neighbor.

No New Insights Are Good New Insights

I'm just back from the Urban Youth Workers Institute at Azusa Pacific University, one of my favorite conferences of the year. People come from all over the country to consider how youth ministry functions in the urban context, which is important, since most major publications related to youth ministry is produced out of a worldview that is largely ignorant of urban life. The environment of UYWI is casual, relational--almost like a reunion--but simultaneously very serious and no-nonsense.

I managed to supply some nonsense. I was selling books and meeting with authors and other culture-shapers along with my friend and coworker Andrew. We had a good time commenting on all the quirks of Azusa, California, particularly its aversion to hotels and sit-down restaurants. I got to present a book contract to a relatively new friend and his wife, and I had conversations with a number of complete strangers about what they'd like to read or write.

Andrew and I were joined for a good chunk of the silliness by Chris Heuertz, a good friend and author of the soon-to-be-released Simple Spirituality, and Andrew Marin, a good friend and author of the 2009 release Love Is an Orientation.

We had hoped to have copies of Simple Spirituality available to sell, but no such luck; the book is still at the printer for a couple of weeks. I had hoped to have copies of Deliver Us from Me-Ville to give to my friends and save myself some postage, but that too didn't quite make the deadline. Bummer. I drowned my sorrows in Cap'n Crunch Shakes from Carl Jr's and consoled myself in the company of very goofy friends. We danced on the edge of making a waitresses night and getting ourselves kicked out of a Thai restaurant--the best food within walking distance of the campus of APU, even though we didn't walk. I watched two of my friends/authors get to know one another and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

I have no new insights coming out of UYWI--oddly enough, between selling books and meeting with people I caught only about fifteen minutes of the conference itself--other than the insights I gained over coffee or saki or Cap'n Crunch shakes or leaning against a post talking to a complete stranger. All in all, I'd saythe conference was a success.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pentecost Sunday

Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—-and the things that are not-—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—-that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."
--1 Corinthians 1:26-31

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Word on the Street

I heard today that Deliver Us from Me-Ville is now in print. That's good. I read earlier this week that whole denominations almost never recite the Lord's Prayer, and so (I infer) may never get the joke in the title. That's bad.

Being in print means that the book will soon be on sale at fine booksellers from to Zazzy'z Coffee House and Book Seller. That's good. I also learned that Borders Online lists the title as "Deviler Us from Me-Ville." That's bad; nobody wants to be deviler than they already are.

These are the things bookwriting divas such as myself fret over as their books go from the abstract to the concrete, from being in their heads to being on their shelves. I have never been quite so neurotic as those weeks surrounding the release of my books. So I apologize in advance or at long last, depending on whether I've already worn out my welcome with you, or I'm starting to sound a wee bit obnoxious.

The following people are the final endorsers of my book. They, along with eight other folks whose comments were posted earlier, saw fit to declare publicly that they read the book and didn't throw up. Their endorsements are particularly meaningful to me because I'm fans of each of them; their own writings have been in many cases seminal for me, and their decency has in many cases been arresting and inspiring all at once. I hope you'll check out their books and, if you're so motivated, you'll pick up a copy of mine and let me know what you think.


David offers a winsome, intelligent, and challenging look at one of the most difficult subjects to address honestly—ourselves. Below the surface of this book is an insightful critique of the self-centered approach to life. For those who are interested in finding a better way, this book offers hope.
—Brian Sanders, executive director of the Underground Network and author of Life After Church

In Deliver Us from Me-Ville, David Zimmerman focuses on the problem we all want to ignore—namely, that we are all stuck on ourselves and that it messes up every relationship we have. I can’t think of a more important problem to address in a new book. (I just wish I had thought of it first!)
—Mike Sares, Pastor, Scum of the Earth Church

With Deliver Us from Me-Ville, David Zimmerman has established himself as a credible social critic, a subversive voice calling for virtue in an age of substance-less posturing, and a humble prophet of hope in an image-driven day of cynicism and self-absorption. His newest book is provocative, imaginative, and full of pointed, yet understated jabs at what Christian community has become. His thoughtfulness regarding over-identification with self is guided by his pithy gems of literary hilarity. Deliver Us from Me-Ville is fresh, innovative, and all that is great about insurrectionism in Christian authorship.
—Christopher L. Heuertz, International Executive Director, Word Made Flesh, and author of Simple Spirituality

Zimmerman’s book is a searching, sober, and at times very funny, analysis of the impact that the culture of narcissism, or excessive self-importance, has on the Christian mind. It even offers escape routes out of Me-Ville—ways to keep the saving knowledge that we matter so much to God, safe from the corruption of mattering too much to ourselves. So read this book and get over yourself!
—Ben Patterson, campus pastor, Westmont College and author of Waiting and He Has Made Me Glad

With light-hearted wit, self-effacing humility and utter seriousness, Dave Zimmerman takes on one of the great idols of our cultural-captivity. Deliver Us from Me-Ville is a warm invitation to leave behind our narcissism to more fully embrace The Way of Jesus.
--Mark Scandrette, author of SOUL GRAFFITI: Making A Life In the Way of Jesus

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Bears Don't Dance

I'm the MC at my church's weekly Alpha course, which means that every week I have to come up with a joke to fulfill the course's commitment to humor (ALPHA is an acronym; L = Laughter) and to build a sense of community by creating shared memories for all the participants. Usually, I don't mind telling you, the jokes are lame--the kind of jokes you've been e-mailed a million times by the same person, the kind of jokes that you can tell in church without blushing. I've compensated for the default lameness of the Alpha humor at my disposal by searching for an overarching theme, by which we chuckle and chortle our way through the eleven week course.

This time around, quite by accident, a potential theme revealed itself: the dancing bear. In my absence my pastor showed a video in which the viewer is instructed to count the number of times four people in white shirts pass a basketball between them, without confusing the "white shirt" team with the four people in black shirts doing the same thing. Halfway through the video a question pops onto the screen: "Did you notice the dancing bear?" Rewind and suddenly everyone sees a bear moonwalk onscreen, turn to the camera, bust a few moves, then moonwalk off screen. Hilarity ensues.

Because as every pastor knows, the best jokes don't just make you laugh but make you think, our pastor drew a lesson from the experience: there's more going on in our midst than we can see. Can I get an Amen?

My pastor's video bought me a week but presented me with a dilemma: what possible theme could be contained within a video about a dancing bear? I bless Google, which directed me to a video taken in a national park; a bear scratched its back against a tree, while some plucky film editor inserted a soundtrack. Two minutes of the incredible raving bear became my humor for week two.

Ah, but what now? Now I'm committed. I bless Youtube, where I found a scene from the late great Muppet Show in which Gopher and Fozzy perform the song "Simon Smith and His Dancing Bear." I remember it like it was yesterday. Week three--check.

Now I was backed into a corner, however; where does an MC go after Fozzy Bear? Nowhere, it turns out, so I was forced to retire the theme of the dancing bear in the fourth week. Fozzy gave me my out, as he failingly attempted to sing, to Rolph the Dog's accompaniment, "I've Got Rhythm." Hilarious.

I explained to my audience that I could not sustain the dancing bear theme because bears don't really dance. The notion of a dancing bear is anthropomorphic: we'd assigned the human cultural trait of dancing to the peculiar activity of a nonhuman entity (the bear) to normalize it for ourselves. Anthropomorphisms allow us to set aside the occasional "Why?" question that threatens to distract us from the more important questions of the story we find ourselves in.

In the case of the dancing bear, the more important question is, "Is this funny?" The anthropomorphism makes it so; otherwise it's just a bear doing what bears do. Anthropomorphisms are often applied to God as well, not in order to strip God of his Otherness but so that we can move on to the more important question of the moment: Adam and Eve hear the sound of God "strolling in the garden in the evening breeze" in Genesis 3 and we're tempted to ask, "Does God have legs? I thought God was everywhere? How does Someone who's omnipresent stroll through something?" We're not given time to dwell on that question because that's not the story. The story is the question of why Adam and Eve, and why now the rest of us, hide from God, and what happens to us when we do.

I'm currently reading the ethically troubling and brilliantly written Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. The book explores the diet, industry and economy of food in contemporary culture, suggesting that our eating habits are potentially ruinous not only to our health but to our culture and to our planet. This guy knows his stuff and he's thrown himself into his thesis, going so far as to slaughter his own chickens and forage his own meals in order to pull back the pristine curtain that guards us from the harsh realities of our diet.

I noticed along the way that Pollan anthropomorphizes the notion of natural selection. The most recent example in my reading (page 289) is modest and subtle, but it's there nonetheless: "The fact that we humans are indeed omnivorous is deeply inscribed in our bodies, which natural selection has equipped to handle a remarkably wide-ranging diet." The abstract natural selection is given willfulness, intentionality, creativity in this sentence. I'm reminded of the 139th Psalm, acknowledging to God that

"you shaped me first inside, then out,
you formed me in my mother's womb. . . .
All the stages of my life were spread out before you,
the days of my life all prepared
before I'd even lived one day."

The thing about anthropomorphisms is that they're essentially lies in service to a greater truth:
* The moonwalking bear wasn't real; a human being with intelligence, willfulness and creativity dressed up in a bear suit to ask, "What aren't we seeing in our midst?"
* The raving bear wasn't really dancing; a human being with intelligence, willfulness and creativity set the bear's natural behavior to music to ask, "Is there beauty and delight in the world that we're not privy to?"
* Fozzy Bear didn't really have rhythm; a human being with intelligence, willfulness and creativity shoved his or her hand up Fozzy's hindquarters and directed his steps in order to make us laugh.

I don't intend here to contest the notion of natural selection, but I think it's worth noting that we describe the process in ways that presume intelligence, willfulness and creativity. We're left to figure out the larger question such an anthropomorphism allows us to ask: "Why are we what we are? And how then shall we live?"