Saturday, August 29, 2009

Dying in Public

As a friend of mine commented recently, a lot of people have died this summer. By that he meant that a lot of famous people have died this summer; I'm reasonably confident that the global death toll isn't substantially higher than what is typical between June and September. But the list is long of names instantly recognizable:

Koko Taylor, June 3
David Carradine, June 3
Ed McMahon, June 23
John Callaway, June 23
Michael Jackson, June 25
Farrah Fawcett, June 25
Billy Mays, June 28
Karl Malden, July 1
Martin Hengel, July 2
Steve McNair, July 4
Robert McNamara, July 6
Oscar G. Meyer Jr., July 6
Walter Cronkite, July 17
Frank McCourt, July 19
John Hughes, August 6
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, August 11
Les Paul, August 13
Robert Novak, August 18
Ted Kennedy, August 25
Adam "DJ AM" Goldstein, August 28

These names are instantly recognizable to me because of where I live, how I grew up, and what in the world around me interests me. There's a painfully long list of newsworthy people who died this summer, whose names are not familiar to me but who would give a moment's pause to other people, in other places, of other interests. I feel sorry for Canadian hockey player Ted Kennedy, who died earlier this month but whose death, even his name, is overshadowed by the death of the lion of the U.S. Senate. Senator Kennedy lay in repose for several days and was brought by car to a visitation site in Boston. His funeral is this morning, where the sitting U.S. president will eulogize him. He'll be buried next to his brothers in Arlington National Cemetery.

His death, we might hope, bookends an emotionally exhausting summer that might be thought to begin with the same-day deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. Fawcett's death was anticipated, even produced for television, but Jackson's death caught us off guard and left people wondering how to pay their respects to each without neglecting the other. In the end, Jackson's death captured more of the national imagination, and was marked by red-carpet memorials in New York, Los Angeles and his hometown of Gary, Indiana.

I find myself wondering who decides the terms for mourning for any given death, and how they are decided. Why not, for example, a more public memorial for Walter Cronkite, who anchored some of the most profound moments of twentieth-century world history? Why not a nationwide "Day of Blues" to mark the far-reaching influence of Koko Taylor? Why not a broad public conversation about the interplay between Judaism, Christianity and paganism in honor of Martin Hengel's groundbreaking work?

These things happened in the particular pockets and corners of these people's primary worlds, I'm sure. And I'm sure the architects of the events that memorialized singer Jackson and Senator Kennedy had well-considered reasons for the decisions they made. But this long list of newsworthy deaths, if nothing else, should remind us of the much, much longer list of anonymous deaths, being mourned in private by people whose lives were no less touched by their little loved ones as by these big names. And likewise, these big-name deaths are no less significant for the bigness of their names. The poem by John Donne has become cliche, and rightly so, because it speaks truth: "Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Up with Mediaeval Impracticality

My day job is as an editor for a publisher of nonfiction books, and as such I try to help people frame and structure their ideas so that their reader won't nod off. Often, that's not an easy task. There are many shapes that a nonfiction book could take that readers will tolerate, but my favorite is something along the lines of this:

1. Articulate the problem.
2. Trace the history of the problem.
3. Identify the core principles that pertain to the problem.
4. Tease out the implications of the core principles.
5. Reorganize the world around those core principles and their implications.

(Of course this presumes some prior identification with the problem and some hope of a solution on the part of the reader. And so the book is packaged around the promise--an introduction and a conclusion (perhaps better thought of as a benediction) assure the reader that the ennui that led them to the book can be confronted and contended with--and sold by its solutions with a catchy, memorable, hope-filled title. Instant classic. Or something like that.)

This structure is, incidentally, how practical theologians tend to think. Practical theologians emphasize the feedback loop between the abstract work that historically has characterized theology and the world-made-by-and-sustained-by-God that inspires such abstractions. They ask questions like "Why are so many people getting tattoos? Why is the Bible seemingly so opposed to tattoos? Are the tattoos of the twenty-first centuries A.D. and B.C. the same? If not, how ought we to think about contemporary body art?"

My utter lack of body art aside, I suppose my enthusiasm for such grounded theological reflection may make me an armchair practical theologian. My patron saint in this vocation is G. K. Chesterton, who wrote the following as an introduction to his Heretics, a collection of essays playfully challenging the prevailing post-Christian minds of his day.

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

I've referred several new authors to this parable lately, a reminder that they have in a sense embraced the call of this monk, and while they thus may be occasionally and even "somewhat excusably knocked down," clear and cogent books are their gift to a world that too often doesn't know what it wants or even needs. I daresay their books are their ministry, their mission.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Wendell Berry Is a Genius, Part Two

In his essay "Quantity Vs. Form" Wendell Berry contrasts a long life, which biotechnology and commercialism have made the presumed norm, with a whole or complete life, which is more communal and aspirational.

Berry leads off with a discussion of an old friend well into her "latter years," whose degenerative illness had led to great pain. The doctor's course of treatment was to withhold pain medication that was inhibiting her appetite, with the goal of "getting her back on her feet." Berry contrasts this medical bias toward longevity with the experience of Lord Nelson, who died in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and whose death was eulogized by his biographer, Robert Southey, with the pregnant phrase "He cannot be said to have fallen prematurely whose work was done."

Embedded in this eulogy is a sense of vocation, of life purpose, that is subverted by a bias toward longevity. Berry is wise to say explicitly that he's opposed to euthanasia and assistend suicide, because neither is the point. The point is that, as he alludes to elsewhere, we become more and more parasitic and consequently less and less virtuous as a species when we see life as something to be consumed, and longevity as proof of success, rather than life as something to be embodied, and success as defined by the way we conduct ourselves from age to age. This corrosion of our vision is an accident of our hubris; we see the potential within our grasp to overcome the constraints that life necessarily entails for us--among which are the infirmities and limitations that descend on us as we age and the death than none of us can ultimately avoid. Medication has become the silver bullet we use to defeat the bogeyman of death ("Death no apparently is understood, and especially by those who have placed themselves in charge of it, as a punishment for growing old, to be delayed at any cost"), and we discover too late that this bogeyman is actually our friend, that as the Bible and other ancient wisdom asserts, the progression of life through death is part of what defines us and frames who we were meant to be. Berry addresses this succinctly in the middle of the essay:

We come to form, we in-form our lives, by accepting the obvious limits imposed by our talents and circumstances, by nature and mortality, and thus by getting the scale right. Form permits us to live and work gracefully within our limits. . . . The art of living thus is practiced not only by individuals, but by whole communities or societies. It is the work of the long-term education of a people. Its purpose, we may say, is to make life conform gracefully both to its natural course and to its worldly limits.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wendell Berry Is a Genius

Check this out:

Conservative rugged individualists and liberal rugged individualists believe alike that they should be "free" to get as much as they can of whatever they want. Their major doctrinal difference is that they want (some of the time) different sorts of things.

"Every man for himself" is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy or for a panic in a burning nightclub, appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings. A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighborliness, and peace. That language is another precious resource that cannot be "privatized." ("Rugged Individualism," in The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays by Wendell Berry)

I've read Wendell Berry in small bits to date, in part because that's how I'm inclined to read, in part because that's how he's inclined to write. "I am a small writer as I am a small farmer" is how he describes himself in this collection of essays. If you can get as incisive as quickly as the above pair of paragraphs suggests, more power to you.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Not Just Anybody

This past weekend was the Fest for Beatle Fans, which my wife, my father-in-law and myself attend every year. This was a particularly good year; the special guests performed such a range of Beatle-related music as "Say Say Say" by Paul McCartney and the late Michael Jackson, and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide 'Cept for Me and My Monkey" from the White Album.

This weekend I also got spammed on a very old post at my other blog, Strangely Dim. It happened to be about John Lennon, dating to December 8, 2005--the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death. I repost it here because I still like it, and because John's mindfulness is still worth keeping in mind.


I've tended to be a Paul McCartney guy, myself, but as a songwriter and founder of the Beatles, Lennon was a force of popular music. You can still hear his influence even on people who don't know they've been influenced by him.

I was ten when John died. I don't remember the moment, but I do remember the aftermath. My family went to the library the next day, where we joined a room of people watching news reports. I acted like a ten year old, running around and goofing off, and I was rebuked and chased away by the gathered crowd. It was a brief foreshadowing for me that the world is not as innocent and playful as we're allowed as children to imagine it.

I was ill-prepared today to commemorate John's passing, but fortunately I was able to borrow the soundtrack to The Royal Tenenbaums, which features a little song by John: "Look at Me." I'd not heard it before, but it's emblematic of some of John's most intimate writing:

Look at me. What am I supposed to be? . . .

Here I am. What am I supposed to do? . . . What can I do for you? . . .

Who am I? Nobody knows but me. . . . Nobody else can see--just you and me.

Maybe he's singing to Yoko or his mom or his dad or the universe or me, but the genius of it is that it sounds like something you whispered just last night to a lover or a parent or the universe. Anyone can sing it to anyone at any given moment. I might sing it to God; God might sing it to me. Either way, it'll occupy my thoughts long after it's sung.

In the wake of these lyrics or these thoughts I'm reminded of my own finiteness and of the grace of God, who comes to us and reveals himself to us and abides with us--a great favor to a world of people who can only comprehend so much. I'm reminded of a quirky little line from St. Augustine I came across in David Benner's book The Gift of Being Yourself:

Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Book Review: The Truth About You

I'm surprised that a publisher like Thomas Nelson would publish a book that advises people to "break" the Golden Rule--Jesus' command to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you"--every day. But that's exactly what they did with Marcus Buckingham's The Truth About You. Buckingham offers this advice not as an act of rebellion per se but because, apparently, Jesus had some flawed logic.

This book had been sitting around the house for some time, waiting for me to work up the moxie to enter fully into it. It's like a Bible in that way, right down to the shiny lettering on the face and spine. It's also like a Bible in its dual promise of practicality and transformation: by taking it up you're not just reading a book, you're adopting a discipline, entering into a way of life.

The truth about you offers almost nothing to the desperately poor, and little more to the merely poor. That's fine; books are, arguably, the domain of the well-to-do. This book is for them--people born and raised in prosperity who are starting to chafe against the artificial restraints placed on them. As such it's pretty good, actually, except that its starting point is so secondary.

The truth about you necessarily includes the truth about the human condition, and the meaning of life, and so a book like this--which has the moxie to suggest it can tell you all you need to know to live your best life now, or whatever--really should begin with the question of why human beings exist, and why is there suffering?

To sprint past these questions to the really more mundane question of, essentially, "What do you most enjoy doing?" doesn't necessarily lead someone down the wrong path to their vocation, but neither does it necessarily generate real, deep reflection on life's purpose, regardless of how inspiring the soundtrack of the accompanying video or the typography of the pages. I think the author would agree that "no man is an island"--I get that from some of his rhetoric--but once you establish that no man is an island, digging a moat around your kingdom and casting away all the duties and responsibilities that don't enhance your self-concept makes precious little sense.

Buckingham's definition of "strengths" and "weaknesses" is a big departure from common understanding. "Strengths" are not what you do well but what you're "strengthened" by; likewise with weaknesses. So the solution to all the world's ills, we're led to believe, is to do whatever makes you happy as much of the time as possible. Tell that to the kid living in the garbage dump. I'm sure she has things that make her happy. Under Buckingham's program, that would be enough for everyone.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Bless Me Blogger

I wrote this roughly four years ago. So far as I know, it didn't translate into additional sales of my first book. Maybe, since confession is a theme in Deliver Us from Me-Ville, it'll fare better the second time around.


Bless me, blogger, for I have sinned. It's been several weeks since my last confession . . .

I do look at my blog as a sort of confessional, in the sense that a confessional allows you to reflect on your missteps and try to calibrate your next steps. I was told once by a professor that the early church practiced open, communal confession until wealthy and influential Christians pushed for more privacy. At that point the church moved the sacrament of confession into booths, and confessing publicly became passé. Eventually, in the name of the "priesthood of all believers," some Christian movements abandoned the practice of confession altogether.

I have to say, I'm pretty comfortable with the idea of never confessing. I bawled like a baby when I made my first confession--and I've been a much badder boy since then. But on the other hand, we lose out on something precious when we decline to acknowledge--to ourselves, at least, but more urgently to God, and arguably just as urgently to the people in our lives--that we have sinned in our thoughts and in our deeds, in what we have done and what we have failed to do.

For example, since my book's release I've come to expect anyone who claims to care about me to read it, relish it, follow the links to all the supplemental stuff, and tell everyone they know about it. In my mind, Jesus has told his followers: "Go therefore into all nations and sell people of every tribe and tongue copies of Comic Book Character."

Since the book's release I've become unusually sensitive to the argument that comic books are lowbrow literature. Some of my defensiveness is understandable, of course, but I tend to take such an attitude as a personal affront, even though prior to and even since the book's release 99.999999999999999999999 percent of the earth's inhabitants had no idea that I exist.

Since the book's release I've exploited many of my relationships. I've sent free copies to a good number of people in hopes that (a) they'll tell everyone they know how awesome it is (and perhaps, by extension, how awesome I am) and (b) they'll invite me to speak at their events so I can look and feel like an expert, sell more books and shore up my apparently quite fragile self-image. I've actually, as part of the publication process, categorized the people in my life as either "influencers" or not so that I could make the most "strategic" use of a budgeted "influencer mailing." Some of the people on my list I don't even know; I simply know that they're "influential."

Since the book's release I've been distracted from my job, my wife, my parents, my siblings, my church, my friends, my hobbies, myself, my God. I've googled myself countless times, I've snuck a peek at all sorts of sales data that I ought not have access to, I've even forgotten to tend to my cats' litterbox--and trust me, after a few days that's almost impossible.

It feels good to give all this some air. Not that I've changed my habits at all, but at least I'm not hiding from the truth anymore. And really, once you've pranced around on film in a spandex body suit, hiding anything is pretty ridiculous.

Thanks. I feel better now. Buy my book.

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'...