Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Poetry, or Publishing, or Christianity, or Life in General

A friend of mine has a mantra that serves as a tagline to his blog and, I presume, a verbal escape valve: "Whatever you do," I picture him muttering under breath, "there will be critics."

I've stolen that idea from him on numerous occasions--not for personal profit, but rather to talk my blood pressure down during times when I've felt misunderstood, misrepresented, even betrayed by people who probably have more influence over me than is appropriate.

I'm a people-pleaser, but I work in an industry (Christian publishing) that is perpetuated at least in part by strong disagreement. One of our bestselling books from 2009 was, if you can follow this, a response by a scholar to a booklength critique of his theology by another scholar, whose own scholarship has precipitated a cottage industry's worth of critique. We relish every book review, positive or negative, as evidence of a book's influence; on particularly provocative books we identify the author's opponents and invite them to endorse.

We're not alone in this seemingly dysfunctional publishing strategy. Arguably publishing's whole history is the codifying of disagreement. Twentieth-century theologians Karl Barth and Emil Brunner duked it out in print; in response to Brunner's essay "Nature and Grace," Barth published an essay titled "No!" Friedrich Schleiermacher published his On Religion as a collection of "Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers." On and on, back and forth, from the invention of the printing press, from the discovery of ink, from the creation of language even, debate and argument have been present, and rancor and derisiveness have been barely hidden in the shadows. Debates in print are sometimes irenic, sometimes passionate, and generally well-articulated, because they have the benefit of a publisher's pace: it takes time to set those characters in proper order, to dot the i's and cross the t's and whatnot, and in that time tempers can sometimes cool and passion can find its focus. So despite the apparent enabling of my chosen profession for vitriol and awfulizing, we generally know what we're doing, and we can generally find ways to keep it civil.

Ah, if only it were so easy in a digital world--in a broadcast world, even. Soundbites predate Twitter, you may recall, and twenty-four-hour news cycles were around long before the Drudge Report. Publishing seems quaint, anachronistic, in an era where people distill their opinions into thirty seconds or 140 characters. And when they have microphones stuck in their faces, or dead air to fill on the radio, or a ticking clock on their fifteen minutes of fame, sometimes they commit to words sometimes before they think through their thoughts.

So, in the absence of an editorial filter--which is to say, in the absence of slowness--how do we make sure we do no harm with our words, and cut at only what needs to be cut out?

I think it begins with a commitment. We start by attaching ourselves to our opponent. Jesus might have put it in a way that on its surface makes no sense: we commit to love our enemies.

I read a thing about Allen Ginsberg once that has stuck with me ever since; I don't remember where I originally read it, but I found the original anecdote online in the book Claims for Poetry by Marvin Bell. Here's the story, with Bell's context:

The literary career is sometimes a hideous notion. It brings out the worst in critics and reviewers. It develops cliques and antagonistic loyalties when what a poet [or any communicator, I'd say] most needs is to learn from that which most opposes him or her, most disturbs, most confronts. Instead of support, the poet gets knee-jerk hostility from other "camps," and equally reflexive self-imaging praise from friends.

I remember walking across a lawn with Allen Ginsberg in the sixties. A young man called out to him, "What do you think of Creeley's new book?" His tone was clear: he himself didn't think so much of it. Maybe Ginsberg didn't either. But he turned and said, "Whatever Bob's doing, I'm for him." A little more of that would go a long way toward a great American poetry.

Amen for poets. I'd say the same would go a long way toward great American publishing, or a great American Christianity, or a great America--or, for that matter, a great world.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Shared Asynchronous Experience

I was so pumped to watch the Grammies that I just plopped down and did it--twenty-two hours after the fact. That's the reality we live in, a reality in which live broadcasting can, through the technological marvel known as "digital video recording," still be asynchronous communication.

I learned the term "asynchronous communication" from Lynne Baab, whose book Friending is inching toward publication as we speak. Of course, we're not really "speaking"; I'm typing, alone in my family room, and you're wherever you are, however many hours or days or even years after I post this, reading my thoughts in my absence. That's what's meant by "asynchronous," as opposed to "synchronous communication" such as phone or face-to-face conversations, or instant messaging.

More and more communication falls somewhere in between synchronous and asynchronous these days, thanks mostly to the advent of social media. E-mailing, texting, tweeting and status updating all straddle the categories: e-mail is faster than snail-mail, and so carries for the sender some expectation of immediacy, and yet it sits in an in-box to be opened at the discretion of the receiver. I e-mailed an author last Friday, and on Monday I was panicked that she hadn't responded yet. Meanwhile, I have several unopened e-mails that are days upon days old. It's the same with texts and tweets and status updates: we send these communiques out of an immediate, sometimes even urgent, impulse; they're then received and digested and responded to at the leisure of their recipients.

This fact struck me midway through my status blitz as I was watching the Grammies. Recorded from the previous night, they were old news by the time I turned them on. But they were so fun to watch that I felt compelled to share. Interestingly enough, I didn't start posting till the moment I had most been waiting for: Mumford & Sons meet Avett Brothers meet Bob Dylan. Here's where I went from there:

* I'm watching the Grammies. Mumford & Sons are pretty exciting to watch, even while trapped on a tiny stage.
* And the Avett Brothers remind me of a folk version of Ben Folds Five.
* Bob Dylan just made these guys' life.
* There was a time I was convinced Katy Perry would be a one-hit wonder.
* Em.In.Em!
* Just so you know, it's not easy tweeting your way through an event a day after it happened.
* I'm watching the super-cheesy promotion of the Recording Academy--lots of pointing and loungey segues. Matthew Morrison was well cast.
* Impressive that Mick Jagger can honor the memory of Solomon Burke while totally forgetting all his lyrics.
* I wonder if Eminem's best rap album victory is tainted at all by Will.I.Am giving it to him.
* Sometimes you have to slog through a lot of Bieber to get to the Arcade Fire.
* I don't think I've ever seen Arcade Fire look happy before.
I ended my running commentary by quoting Arcade Fire as they performed the closing song, "Ready to Start" (ironic, no?):

"All the kids have always known
That the emperor wears no clothes
But they bow down to him anyway
It's better than being alone."

My posts generated a decent amount of interaction from a small number of people, none of whom were watching the show at the same moment but rather recalling the event from the night before or asking questions about stuff they hadn't seen yet. It may be, then, that the shared experience has itself become an asynchronous form of communication--not quite the watercooler conversation after the fact of an event, the Monday-morning quarterbacking that gives us something to talk about with friends we see only intermittently, but rather something different, something like watching a movie you've already seen with a friend who hasn't seen it. Your friend takes delight in watching the film; you take delight in watching your friend.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Middle-Aged, No Kids

I was reading the second chapter of the apostle Paul's letter to Titus this morning (because I read the Bible--do, dap, dippity) when I found myself in the throes of a crisis. I could go with this:

Encourage the young men to live wisely.
Or I could go with that:

Teach the older men to exercise self-control, to be worthy of respect, and to live wisely. They must have sound faith and be filled with love and patience.
Reading this passage I realized that I've probably switched, permanently, from being one of "the young men" to being one of "the older men"--from being at risk for wearing my "pants on the ground" to wearing my pants up to my armpits. And this freaked me out a bit.

I should have seen it coming, honestly, but I've gotten pretty comfortable thinking of myself as a young guy. I have coworkers who could be my kids (had I been more, um, prolific in college), and yet my default sense of them is that we share a common cultural history, that we'll be moved by the same music, all those sorts of identity markers. I think it has to do in part with the fact that I'm a MANK--middle-aged, no kids.

When I was a boy (in the 1900s, in the late twentieth century, back in the second millennium), much was made of the phenomenon of "DINKS": double-income, no-kid households. These were the folks advertisers targeted for their heaps and heaps of discretionary income and free time. They were the hedonists, sucking the marrow out of life before life sucked the marrow out of them. Or something like that. Advertisers kiss up to the demographics they seek to siphon money out of, so the DINK lifestyle was highly romanticized. What I don't think a lot of people saw coming back then was the phenomenon, twenty years down the road, of MANKS like me.

There are growing numbers of us who, for any number of reasons (not all selfish and hedonistic, as some of you are probably thinking right now--tsk tsk), hit our forties with no kids in tow. And while advertisers aren't overlooking the MANKs--I get wooed aplenty, thank you very much--it's not the advertising that presents a crisis; it's this transition from category to category that the apostle Paul identifies for Titus but that sneaks up on MANKS like me.

"Live wisely" is good advice at any age, which is probably partly why my older self is not relieved of the burden of it by Paul here. Now, though, I have additional responsibilities: to exercise self-control, to be worthy of respect, to have sound faith, to be filled with love and patience.

It's worth noting that none of these aspirations is necessarily exclusive to middle-aged men, so don't get cocky, everyone else. But I do think that it's been assumed historically that these traits will be learned principally in the practice of parenting: it's fathers who find themselves with urgent need of love and patience, who have little people longing to respect them. It's fathers for whom the collision of vocational and relational demands of middle age require a heightened sense of self-control and sound faith. In a culture largely focused on the family, MANKS have a mitigated middle age.

That doesn't excused me from these responsibilities, though. Paul doesn't say "Dads, do this; MANKS, eat, drink and be merry." No, if we take Paul seriously here then I too have a particular responsibility, now that I'm older and regardless of the structure of my household, to be particularly self-controlled, particularly sound of faith and full of love and patience, particularly wise in the way I live. My advanced age garners me a certain amount of respect; what I do with that respect is a test of faith.

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Thrill of Discipleship: An Interview with Tony Melton

My friend Tony Melton has a goal for 2011: to get to Ethiopia. To that end he's written a "blook" (work with me here) to raise funds. The title of the blook? Buy This Book So I Can Go to Ethiopia. It's that kind of plainspoken, lighthearted craziness that makes people love Tony. Below you'll see him at his plainspoken, lighthearted, crazy best, talking about the book, the trip, and the thrill of discipleship. There's an audio interview that covers similar ground but gives you a more complete sense of the guy here. If you're interested in talking with Tony more about his blook or having him out to your church to talk about community ministry, global mission, writing or football, let me know and I'll put you in contact with him.


Why do you want to go to Ethiopia? My brother adopted two girls from Arbogonea, a village in the Sidama region. And even after he changed the lives of those two girls, shockingly, there are still more people in the village who need help with basic things we take for granted, like water, food, electricity, education, and medical treatment.

How does buying this book help? With the funds raised from this book, I hope to be able to pay for the airfare, lodging and meals ($2,500). So each kind person who buys a book is 1/500th of the reason this could happen.

What’s a blook? How’d you come up with that? A blook is a book that’s like a blog – cool, huh? Instead of me just telling people how they should live their lives, it’s more of a discussion on how we can all figure out, in this case, what Jesus meant by LIFE TO THE FULL. How did I come up with that? Huh, I guess there are a lot of crazy ideas running around in my head.

The goal is Ethiopia, but the book is very local. Why is that? It’s cool! Think about it. The fact that people in Lombard, IL or Houston, TX or Green Bay, WI (wait, Packer fans don’t want to help anyone) could partner with folks in Arbogonea is awesome. And, I’m also a big fan of sharing!

How do you manage to keep both a local and a global perspective as you think about matters of faith? Why is it important to you? We are all God’s children right? I think God opens our eyes to some stuff for a reason. That may be right next door to you, or thousands of miles away. In a very real way, this just shows the family of God. If you really think about it, my brother’s girls’ brother, who still lives in Arbogonea, is my family.

You make some pretty dramatic suggestions in this blook—from “quit your job” to “don’t clean your house.” Why are such radical changes so important? They’re important to me because I really thought that’s what God wanted me to do. Now, I do think God probably has something pretty radical for us all to do. It’s just that age-old question, “Are we gonna do it?”

At the same time that you’re making radical suggestions, you’re encouraging people to “relax” and “stop biting their nails.” How did you learn to live radically while retaining a sense of inner peace? How do other people learn it? Want to learn how to live radically and keep an inner peace – READ MY BOOK. Just kidding. Really, that’s the hope that comes with this whole Jesus thing. He calls you to do some crazy stuff, but then He goes with you. And even though you may not see results right away, God’s gonna get done what God needs to get done.

Many of your stories involve people who are homeless. How did these people become so important to you? I hung out with them! I guess it’s just like anyone else – you start to get to know someone, for the most part, you start to like them.

What do you think causes such a divide between people who are well off (or getting by) and people who are homeless? How did you manage to cross that divide in the way you did? How can others do the same? I was in the shelter one day and a guy said, “Is that a Lost Acre’s sweatshirt?” Lost Acres is a bar in my hometown of Romeoville. Turns out, this guy knew a lot of the people I knew, played in a lot of the leagues I did, and went to the same high school as I did. But, he was at the shelter as a guest and I was there as a volunteer. There is not a lot that separates us! Sometimes it’s easy to forget that!

When you go to Ethiopia, what will you tell people there about people here? I will tell them that the people here are awesome! You will not find a more generous group of folks, a more caring community, more hard-working and spiritually real individuals than who God has blessed me with not only in the last couple of years, but really for 39 great years!

What's one of your wishes for the people who read this book? What do you want them to take from it? I would love for this book to start a community of people that are trying to figure out this LIFE TO THE FULL thing. I would love for tons of people to go to

and interact with other people who've read this book. I would love for people to start thinking about new and creative ways to live out the life Jesus has for them, and then start experiencing it.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Dangerbooks! The Wisdom of Stability

Once upon a time I was looking to change jobs, so I sought career advice from a fellow who'd achieved senior status in our industry. I told him my deal: I have roots where I live, but the other places I'd be interested in working are elsewhere. His advice: Be willing to go where God might want you.

He was probably right, but I find it interesting that you rarely hear career advice to the tune of "Be willing to stay where God has you" or "In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it." That has something to do with the culture we find ourselves in, where companies and even communities make few if any promises to a person, and the only power that remains for people is to make few if any promises to the places they find themselves. Companies ship whole divisions overseas. States threaten bankruptcy to escape pension obligations. The only way to protect ourselves, it seems, is by steadfastly keeping our options open, by committing ourselves to keeping our distance.

No wonder we find ourselves so easily distracted. No wonder we can so easily check out of conversations across a table, while logging increasing amounts of time on social media, where we interact with (or simply read about) people we rarely see and in some cases have never met. In his recent book The Wisdom of Stability, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove calls this trending topic like he sees it:

The great advantage of a Facebook friendship, of course, is that it is so easy. I get to choose who I want to "friend" and whose friendship requests I respond to. We gather around our common interests, share the stuff we want others to know, and log off when we feel like it. In many ways what we have is connection without obligation. But intimacy without commitment is what our society has traditionally called "infidelity."

I wrote "Boom!" in the margin. Of course, Facebook's potential for eroding friendship is not an insight unique to Jonathan (Lynne Baab has a great book on Friending in the digital era coming out this spring), but that's not ultimately what this book is about. Jonathan's book is, instead, about fidelity, obedience and stability--three precepts of the monastic movement.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is one of the chief voices of the "new monasticism," a network of voluntary (mostly Protestant) intentional communities modeled after the values of the monastic tradition. These communities tend to form in the "cracks in the empire," places that have suffered the neglect of a supereconomy and the governments that support it. But that's not what The Wisdom of Stability is about. It's rather about how we are grown, and how we fulfill our commitments to God well, when we are rooted to a place and its people. "In a culture that is characterized by unprecedented mobility and speed," he writes in his introduction, "I am convinced that the most important thing most of us can do to grow spiritually is to stay in the place where we are."

This is a topic Jonathan knows well and believes wholeheartedly; the book reads not as one for the moment (as so many books are these days) but one for the ages. His writing is slow-paced, sober and compelling--personal, but not personality-driven. He is concerned for his readers, and he's concerned for the life of faith that is eroded as handily as friendship is eroded when we untether it. A rootless disciple is an oxymoron; Jesus tells us that much in John 17 when he calls us the branches to his vine. Rootless disciples struggle to be obedient to the claim of God on their lives; in times of testing they find themselves "double-minded and unstable in all they do" (James 1:8); a rootless disciple can start to look suspiciously like an infidel.

Jonathan leans heavily into the image of a tree as a model for our discipleship, drawing our attention to the "drip line"--a new term for me that represents the outer perimeter of a trees branches, which then drip nourishment down to the root system underneath. Like a tree's branches and its roots, a disciple's commitment to stability and his or her faith-life are interdependent; they can't nourish themselves, but they nourish one another. As Peter the Venerable put it, "If they keep the first . . . they are held by the content of the second. If they keep the second, they are bound by the constraints of the first." Jonathan goes regularly to the desert fathers and mothers to make his case, but I'm reminded at this point of a passage from G. K. Chesterton's critique of Rudyard Kipling and his ilk in the great Heretics:

The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe. . . . In the heated idleness of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel with the implication of that proverb which says that a rolling stone gathers no moss. We were inclined to ask, “Who wants to gather moss, except silly old ladies?" But for all that we begin to perceive that the proverb is right. The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.

"But what about the Great Commission?" some pious critic might ask. After all, the early church set out to spread good news, not simmer in it, and we hear Jesus himself tell his followers to go "to the ends of the earth." Jonathan is hip to that, and no one could accuse him (or most in the new monasticism) of being stubbornly parochial to the neglect of the needs of the whole world. In fact, Jonathan argues that by stability our wanderlust is pruned and refined: he quotes Benedictine theologian Gerald Schlabach as observing that "we should expect authentic stability to nurture the virtues that allow Christians to become mobile in the best of ways--ready to hear the Abrahamic call, to live among the poor by both giving and receiving hospitality, and thus to nurture the newly deepened commitments by which God's people make Christ present in new communities and cultures." Those who have learned to love a place and its people, Jonathan contends, make for the best missionaries.

(I'm reminded here of my Peter Rollins-inspired reflection on Abraham's call away from his home; check it out here.)

Jonathan's book was featured on many "best of 2010" lists, for good reason. It's an incredibly well-written book on a salient topic by someone who has earned the right to represent all of us in this wrestling match. I like to think he had me in mind when he makes the sympathetic comment that "many of us who choose stability will have to struggle . . . with the midday demon of ambition." Of course, someone who struggles with ambition would imagine himself being written about in such a way, wouldn't he? But The Wisdom of Stability isn't just a self-help book, a slow-down guide for those who flit about. It's a manifesto of sorts, a call to everyone to tend to our drip lines, with the happy side effect of a well-tended world full of well-tended neighborhoods. "Maybe every attempt to keep faith with people wherever we are," he writes, "is a subversion of the spirit of the age." It's also an act of faith, and it's also a channel of God's peace.


I received The Wisdom of Stability free from the Englewood Review of Books on the condition that I would review it here. If I had hated the book, I would have been free to say so, and I would have said so; you'll just have to take my word for that. I received it as an e-book, which in this case is a fancy way of saying they sent me a print-ready PDF of the book, something publishers do all the time in their effort to secure book reviews. "Dangerbooks" are books that have crossed my desk and strike me as particularly compelling, countercultural, provocative and soul-stirring.
See my other "Dangerbook" reviews here.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Christ the Provocateur

For the past couple of years I've crashed a party in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, hosted by Tony and Bart Campolo. They've brought people together as "Red Letter Christians," a phrase that sparks some controversy among some students of the Bible. The questions emerge pretty quickly, filtering down essentially to one: Well then, what about the black letters of the Bible?

"Red letters" and "black letters" in reference to the Bible are, admittedly, a bit archaic. I'm sure some Bibles still do this, but for some time Bibles were printed with the words of Jesus set in red ink. So, in theory at least, "red letter Christians" neglect the teachings of, and stories about, the prophets, the patriarchs, the apostles, the early church, the Israelites--everyone but Jesus. In fact, even the acts of Jesus are seemingly set aside by "red letter Christians," leaving only the words that came out of his mouth.

That would be a thin faith indeed. Thomas Jefferson cut all the miracles out of his Bible, and what he had left would still be hundreds of pages longer than what a red letter Christian would keep. So yeah, if that's what red letter Christians are all about, they start to sound like a cult.

A more charitable take on red letter Christians might be to say that they elevate Jesus' words over the rest of the Bible. This still raises the hackles of critics, however, who champion the equal weight of the whole canon of Scripture. So, if red letter Christians are creating a hierarchy of authority within the Bible, that becomes a problem too.

Fortunately, that's not what red letter Christians are doing. Tony Campolo wrote his take on the controversy here, where he attempts to put his movement in the context of other Christian movements:

Much in the same way that certain churches identify with Micah 6:8 or John 3:16 our movement identifies with the specific words of Christ with regards to action and deed. . . . Whether Christ is referring back to Leviticus or Isaiah, the Red Letters vividly show the connection between Christ’s words and the whole of Scripture. As Jesus himself says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Finally, the purpose of Red Letter Christians is not to establish a new theology but to assist and encourage followers of Jesus to live out the lifestyle prescribed by Christ.

Jamie Arpin-Ricci also helpfully weighs in from his blog:

First, “red letter Christian” is not the arching term with which I define my whole faith, any more than being called a husband makes me any less a son or brother or father. So while it reflects an important commitment, it should not be understood as an affirmation over and against other aspects of my wider faith.

Second, the concept of Red Letter Christians was obviously inspired by the Red Letter Edition of the Bible, invented by editor Louis Klopsch, in which the words of Jesus appear in red ink. Klopsch made it abundantly clear that this innovation was not intended to elevated one part of Scripture over any other, but rather to actually allow us to focus on the fullness of what Jesus said, seeing how powerfully it reflected the truth and fulfillment of the rest of Scripture.

Jamie goes on to emphasize the real meaning behind the movement: to showcase the idea of Jesus as a provocateur. We hear "the teachings of Jesus" and too easily slip into the sanitized, suburbanized interpretations of those teachings that constitute the mainstream teachings of the contemporary church. In reality, Jesus was as much provoker as teacher, confronting established understandings of biblical texts, challenging accepted forms of piety and worship, decrying the injustice of the culture of his day. Red letter Christians refuse to hide from the uncomfortable truths coming out of Jesus' mouth. We don't necessarily handle those truths consistently better than anybody else, but we're committed to keeping them in front of us. I'll give Jamie the last word:

That some might take such a commitment too far is a fair concern. However, such concern can become just as much a hindrance when it keeps us from facing the prophetically painful questions that Jesus’ words & example confront us with.

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'...