Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Loud Time Endorses: Burnside Writers Collective

Call me self-serving, but I'm a fan of Burnside Writers Collective, an online venture with its origins in the Pacific Northwest but now with contributors across the United States. Very creative writing dealing (mostly) responsibly with matters (mostly) important to (mostly) thoughtful Christians. I've been a fan for years, as evidenced by the link in my sidebar that still, for the time being at least, takes you to the old site. (Give it a few seconds and it'll reroute you.) But the Collective launched its dramatically overhauled website recently, and (here's the self-serving part) as of today it includes my regular column "Becoming the Great Us."

This column, inspired by a song in my head and propelled forward by the conversation profiled in the first entry, "The Freak Show We Find Ourselves In," picks up where my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville leaves off, I like to think. One legitimate critique I heard more than once was that, for a book ostensibly about getting past self-centeredness, the focus seemed to remain on the individual self. In my defense, I think my critics stopped reading the book before they got to the "community" chapter, but I concede the point that there's much more to be said about the dynamics of on-again, off-again repentant narcissists being brought together and shaped into a single body, or temple, or other biblical image for community. This notion of "Becoming the Great Us" has become, for a while at least, the project that most inspires me; I'm reading incredible books about life together and having incredible conversations about the same. If the concept stirs your imagination, please do contact me; my voice in this conversation is far more representative than authoritative, so I'd be glad to pass on your stories and ideas in the space BWC has given me.

Some other recent favorites you'll find at Burnside:

*Editorial ruminations on dirty words, creative writing and theological seriousness.
*A report on the dilemma of listening to the Beatles and other masterful recordings on earbuds.
*A retrospective on the music of Rich Mullins.
*A review on the new book by controversial pastor Mark Driscoll, which is effectively a referendum on the same.
*A showcase of the perplexity of being wealthy and wanting to be socially conscious in a world of need.

Plenty more where that came from, folks. Hope you enjoy it, bookmark it, link your friends to it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Julie, Julia and Everyone Else

Last night we finally saw Julie & Julia, the film version of the book about the blog about the cook. It was really good, surprisingly cheerful. I kept waiting for the crises, but they were so homey, so everyday, so manageable that they never raised my stress level. Julie & Julia wasn't exhilarating; it was merely joyful.

Interestingly, while everyone has been telling us not to see it hungry, the food was a secondary factor for us. My wife had just come home from a conference about marriage counseling (she's a therapist), so she was struck mostly by the overwhelmingly positive marital dynamics in both couples. I, on the other hand, am a blogger who's written on narcissism, and I found myself concentrating mostly on how Julie (and Julia, for that matter) processed and shared their experiences.

The film takes place early in the life of blogging as a practice; frustrated writer and amateur cook Julie decides to cook her way through Julia Child's cookbook and blog her way through the experience. Her first problem is explaining to her mother what in the world she's doing, and why it's worth doing. Meanwhile she frets over, first, whether anyone is reading what she's writing, and later, how to make sense of her connection to an ever-growing pool of readers. She celebrates benchmark moments in numbers of comments, she processes the strange of experience of having her blog ranked on Salon.com, she fantasizes and strategizes over the media's interest in her unique project. She wrestles her way through the temptations and frustrations of self-centeredness and, we're left to presume and hope, out the other side.

Julia has a similar experience. Seeking a way of finding fulfillment as an expatriate wife and non-mother in post-WWII, pre-feminism France, she meanders through hobbies till she finds her sweet spot in the kitchen. She then embarks on a vision for reviving the art of cooking in American households by partnering with two French chefs on a cookbook, at which point she launches a frustrating but ultimately successful campaign to get published.

The understated story in the film is the role of direct personal friendships. Julia and her husband quickly find a core community in France and share their stories and their struggles openly. Julie's project is launched at a dinner table with friends who will later return to the table to celebrate her thirtieth birthday and the completion of the challenge. Both women are, for the purposes of the film, the center of these communities' world--they and their husbands always sit at the head and the foot of the table, their concerns are exclusively the concerns of the supporting characters--but it's easy to extrapolate from this portrayed narcissism to imagining these friends sharing all kinds of life together--knowing each others' interests and anxieties, passing each other potatoes, all those sorts of everyday things. Both women had relationships with faceless, faraway people, but it was these flesh-and-blood relationships that kept them grounded and propelled them forward.

Even the relationship of Julia to Julie, one that apparently never became direct either through correspondence or introduction, is put in proper context by the real-time relationships each has to her husband and friends. Julia may fantasize about the far-off American woman who will put her recipes to use, but she cooks for the people she sees every day. Julie may "talk" to Julia as she cooks, but she knows and takes comfort in the fact that while the Julia in her head will never take on flesh and sit down at table with her, she has real relationships with people she can reach out and touch.

So as much as Julie & Julia is about food and blogging, it's also about community--particularly community in circumstances that make community difficult. In that respect, Julie and Julia are just like everyone else.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Jean Vanier Is a Genius, Final Entry (for Now)

Reading Community & Growth by Jean Vanier has been a long-overdue pleasure. Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities--able-bodied and disabled people living, serving and worshiping together--is acutely aware of the interior and societal challenges that inhibit how we relate to one another. His other book, Becoming Human, is similarly profound, but this one is agenda-setting: a must-read (and must-re-read) for people who fancy themselves visionaries and architects of life together. There's a whole chapter about meetings, for Pete's sake.

The ego is a key theme for Vanier, a perpetual struggle for individuals, communities and whole cultures. Not that egoism is a bogeyman, but he does see it asserting and propagating itself in all corners of life. His solution is important: we don't berate ourselves and others for our ego indulgence; we recognize that behind it is a disordered apprehension of love. We, however, don't love others out of their egoism, because to do so would be to indulge our own egos and consequently to do harm to the other. Instead we remind others, and with them ourselves, that the love of God is the stuff that we are made of, and the love of one another is the stuff that we were made for. What follows is the last quote I'll post from Vanier for a while; I think of it as something like his benediction to his readers, a way of sending us from his book back into our life together.
We have to remind ourselves constantly that we are not saviours. We are simply a tiny sign, among thousands of others, that love is possible, that the world is not condemned to a struggle between oppressors and oppressed, that class and racial warfare is not inevitable. We are a sign that there is hope, because we believe that the Father loves us and sends his Spirit to transform our hearts and lead us from egoism to love, so that we can live everyday life as brothers and sisters.

Sartre is wrong when he says that hell is other people. It is heaven that is other people. They only become hell when we are already locked into our own egoism and darkness. If they are to become heaven, we have to make the slow passage from egoism to love. It is our own hearts and eyes that have to change.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jean Vanier Is a Genius, Part Three

Community & Growth was published in 1979, the same year as Christopher Lasch's Culture of Narcissism. Sociologist Lasch was pointing out the societal trends that reflected a turn inward and its deadening effect on culture. Vanier's Community & Growth had a different function, a sort of justification for his at that time twenty-five-year project of bringing together able-bodied and disabled people in committed relationships of mutuality and gratuity. Lasch was pointing out that we'd allowed "normal" to become something dysfunctional and self-defeating; Vanier was showing that what appears abnormal to the broader society offers a prophetic vision of what could be.

Thirty years later the gulf between Lasch's culture of narcissism and Vanier's vision for community has widened. Social psychologist Jean Twenge recently reported that contemporary college students today openly acknowledge that they're the most narcissistic generation ever. I think you could argue that some other generation still holds the title, but it is nevertheless interesting that (a) people would say such a thing about themselves and (b) not be moved to repentance by it.

Meanwhile Vanier's notion that people can commit to one another in healing relationships has been embraced and experimented with more and more broadly, to the point where one of the more interesting stories in contemporary religion is the New Monasticism, where young people commit to living together in consecrated relationships with each other and the neighborhood surrounding them. I don't know that all of them would point to Vanier as their spiritual fountainhead, but they're certainly all playing in similar waters.

The contrast between these two portraits, I think, hints at their interconnectedness: a big slide from what we were meant to be calls for a big vision of the same. Late in his book Vanier suggests the following shift in missional priorities for the church:

There are so many people who live alone, crushed by their loneliness. It is obvious that too much solitude can drive people off the rails, to depression or alcoholism. More and more people seem to have lost their balance because their family life has been unhappy. There are so many who are lost, taking drugs, turning to delinquency; there are so many who are looking for a family and a meaning to their lives. In the years to come, we are going to need so many small communities which welcome lost and lonely people, offering them a family and a sense of belonging. At other times, Christians who wanted to follow Jesus opened hospitals and schools. Now that there are so many of these, Christians must commit themselves to the new communities of welcome, to live with people who have no other family and to show them that they are loved.

It's occasionally interesting to me how much shame we assign to narcissism; when I've discussed Deliver Us from Me-Ville with people who are parents and grandparents, they almost to a person cluck their tongues and wish their children and grandchildren would read the book--even though in the book I argue that this narcissism is part of the human condition, something that we each contend with and are never entirely free of, which means that parents and grandparents have their own narcissism to face up to. I also contend, however--and I think Vanier would agree--that this plague is at its root a reflection of insecurity, that we are narcissistic at least in part because we feel alone and unprotected in the universe, and that one way of contending with inordinate self-love when we encounter it is to remind people that there is other love available to them, that the love of God for them is purer and more enduring than the self-absorption they've so often settled for. You don't cure a pandemic of narcissism by quarantine; you cure it with love, and lots of it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Who Should Be Most Embarrassed?

All right, I think the week merits this conversation: Who should be the most embarrassed by his or her conduct in public this past week?

Was it Serena Williams, whose tirade and threats cost her a tennis match she was about to lose anyway?

Was it Representative Joe Wilson (R, South Carolina), who broke protocol in the congressional chamber by shouting "You lie!" at President Obama during his health care address?

Was it disgraced former governor Rod Blagojevich, who reacted to the apparent suicide of his close friend, codefendant and possible witness for the prosecution, Chris Kelly, by suggesting that prosecutorial pressure on him to "lie" about the governor's actions led to his suicide?

Was it Michael Jordan, who used his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame as an opportunity to publicly ridicule people with whom he's had decade(s)-long grudges?

Was it Kanye West, who grabbed the microphone from award-winner Taylor Swift to berate the voters for not selecting Beyonce instead?

Was it someone I'm overlooking? Was it me? Was it you? Let's try to learn together from the most uncivil week in recent memory.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Jean Vanier Is a Genius, Part Two

Every once in a while I'm reminded of the thesis behind Loud Time, which I freely admit gets lost from time to time as any number of topics stir me to write. It's my blog, after all; I can do what I want. But the idea that started this blog was that too often people think that to hear God, to come alongside God, demands that they separate themselves from everyone else. Some, in fact, secretly (even to themselves, I suspect) use "quiet time with God" as an excuse to withdraw from people. I don't doubt that God is present when we retreat from others and quiet ourselves to welcome him, but rather with Loud Time I intended to affirm that God is also present when we gather together. Today I read from Jean Vanier's Community & Growth a lovely iteration of that idea. This dude is a genius.

Many people in community tend to see the times they are alone as times of revitalisation, as opposed to the times of "dedication" or "generosity" they spend with the community. This means that they have not discovered the nourishment of the community.

This comes in the moments when together we discover that we make up a single body, that we belong to each other and that God has called us to be together as a source of life for each other. These times of wonder become celebration. They are like a deep, peaceful and somtimes joyful realisation of our unity and call, of the essential of our lives and of the way that God is leading us. They are a gift, a message of God in the community which awakens the heart, stimulates the intelligence and gives back hope. We rejoice and give thanks that we are together; we become more conscious of God's love and call for the community.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Preaching on Me-Ville

I google myself. I've said it before, I'll say it again. In my most recent round of virtual navel-gazing I came across a sermon by Rev. Jim Lake at First United Methodist Church of Oviedo. He preaches on Luke 5, where Jesus is teaching while Peter is cleaning his nets. He gets the name of the book wrong in the sermon, but whatevs. You can access the audio here. Good stuff. If you've preached on or from the book, I'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Jean Vanier Is a Genius

I quoted extensively from Jean Vanier's Becoming Human for my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville. Vanier, the founder and voice of the L'arche communities, where disabled and abled people live together in mutual community, has a gentle grace to him that allows the cultural critique inherent in his life's work to penetrate the defensiveness and discomfort that would otherwise encounter his readers. Now I'm finally reading a book of his that came out thirty years ago, a book I rescued years ago from an apartment a group of us were cleaning out for the Jesus People in Chicago, a book that a friend of mine (and author of the recent Folly of Prayer) told me is the most important book available on community living: Community and Growth.

This book analyzes the state of communal living in the midst of the digital age, in the aftermath of the free-everything 1960s, in the wake of disco. Around the same time of this book's release came the seminal Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch, but Vanier more pointedly calls out "the prisons of our egoism" and the consequent pervasive struggle against fear and self-assertion. Vanier watched idealism give way to hedonism and narcissism during the Age of Aquarius, and he anticipated the neglect that would heap on the developmentally disabled in such an age, and so he committed himself--and people have consistently committed themselves ever since--to not just serving the developmentally disabled in some patronizing way but to communing with them, learning from them, joining with them in covenantal community.

Vanier is a realist, which is, I think, what makes him both so gracious and so challenging. Here's a great example, from pages 74-75 of the Paulist edition:

If we are to grow in love, the prisons of our egoism must be unlocked. This implies suffering, constant effort and repeated choices. To reach maturity in love, to carry the cross of responsibility, we have to get beyond the enthusiasms, the utopias and the naivetes of adolescence.
It seems to me more and more that growth in the Holy Spirit brings us from a state of dreaming--and often illusion--to a state of realism. Each of has our own dreams and projects, which prevent us from seeing ourselves clearly and accepting ourselves and others as we are. Dreams throw up strong barriers. They hide the psychological, human and spiritual poverty which we find hard to bear in ourselves. . . . When we discover that God lives in us and carries us, our dreams can disappear without leaving us depressed. We are held by the gift of faith and hope, that fine thread which binds us to God.
People in community ask how they can know if they and it are growing. St. Paul gives a clear indication in his Epistle to the Corinthians: love is not heroic or extraordinary acts. . . . Perhaps the essential quality for anyone who lives in community is patience: a recognition that we, others and the whole community, take time to grow. Nothing is achieved in a day. If we are to live in community, we have to be friends of time.

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'...