Sunday, July 31, 2011

1000000 Miles in 1000 Years: My Review

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My LifeA Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life by Donald Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's been a while now since I've read a Donald Miller book. I read Blue Like Jazz long after it came out in order to figure out why everyone was freaking out over it. I enjoyed it, although I don't make a habit of reading memoir, so I don't think at the time I could rightly judge whether it was good, great or something other. Anyway, in the interim between reading BLJ and now reading this, I've read a number of articles by Don Miller, seen him speak a number of times, and I know that when he writes a book, it's because he can't get something out of his mind. For this book, the things he can't get out of his mind are the mechanics of storytelling, and the notion that God is a storyteller, and we are God's stories.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is ostensibly about the process Miller went through when he was approached to make a movie out of BLJ. As it happens, books, particularly memoirs, don't become movies overnight. He went through all kinds of uncomfortable epiphanies about how thinking is not necessarily living, how comfort is not necessarily compelling. In refashioning BLJ into something that other people might actually sit through for two hours, Miller began to wonder whether the life he was living was a good enough story. We meet an array of interesting people, live vicariously through several of Miller's more interesting episodes (hiking the Andes, biking the United States, et cetera, et cetera) and reflect with Miller on how the dynamics of story intersect with the demands of life.

The thing about Miller's writing is how effortlessly informal it is. He writes as though ideas have just come to him; one wonders how he types with his shoulders seemingly perpetually shrugged. He has a dry wit, so dry you actually wonder if the clearly hyperbolic act he's attributed to his roommate actually happened. It's a winsome style of writing that needs no justification, really. No wonder people love him. The thing more worth wondering about is how such a plainspoken approach has landed him not only so many book contracts, but so many book sales.

I work in Christian book publishing, and I've lost track of how many first-time authors compare themselves to Donald Miller, compare their book to BLJ. The intuitively understand, even as they try to convince us otherwise, that Miller's publishing story is utterly anomalous, totally unique. That is, after all, how a story ought to be.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bono: My Goodreads Review

Bono: In Conversation with Michka AssayasBono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas by Michka Assayas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's hard to communicate how thoroughly I appreciated this book. My wife (or was it my mother-in-law?) bought it for me about six years ago, but I didn't read it till the week before I saw U2's last US stop on their 360 tour, in Pittsburgh. Having just read up on Bono's theology, his philosophy of art, his political philosophy, his memories of thirty years with the band, I was set up for a particularly immersive concert experience. Bono reflects repeatedly on the "moral force" of the issues he's bringing before world leaders on behalf of the voiceless, and he leans heavily on the idea of a closed but not locked door being openable with the right push. You understand freshly how participatory/inclusive the band has been throughout its career, why they wish crew members and world leaders alike happy birthday from the stage. Bono is a collaborationist, an appreciative artist, a faith-full friend. If you like the band, read the book; if you wonder what the deal is with this rock-star activist, read the book. If you're tired of Jesus making an appearance in U2s lyrics so often, read the book; at least you'll understand why he invokes Jesus so much.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Break the Fast: An Imagined Lament

This week I'm taking a voluntary seven-day fast from whistling. I managed to offend somebody at the grocery story over the weekend, merely by whistling, and while I think he was being overly sensitive (and yet, simultaneously, highly insensitive--weird), I thought it'd be a good challenge for me to refrain from whistling for a while--to track down why I so often, and so unconsciously, resort to it.

Two days into the fast, whistling seems to be all I'm thinking about. I'm listening to Neil Finn's "Try Whistling This" (which includes, on the song "Last One Standing," the line "Break the fast," so I guess it's OK that I've caught myself about six times already starting to pucker and blow). I'm substituting clicking my tongue or drumming my teeth; I'm posting constant updates on my fast to various social media. I'm even imagining snappy retorts to the guy at the grocery store. All these things would seem to defeat the purpose of fasting, but actually I think it's a good mental exercise for me, something short of an epiphany but along the same lines.

As part of today's obsession, I rewrote the lyrics to "Instant Club Hit (You'll Dance to Anything)" by the Dead Milkmen, reimagining it as a lament taken up by professional whistling artisans as they watch sputtering swine like me trampling over the pearls of their craftsmanship. Here, for your amusement (and mine, I freely admit), goes nothing with "You'll Whistle Anything," by Whistling Jack Smith, Fred Lowery, Professor Pond and their peers in professional and amateur whistling (as imagined by me):

Oh, David, what’s the word?
Don't you sound like Andrew Bird.
How long’d it take to train your embouchure?
What a terrible waste of atmosphere!
You purse your lips and pretend you’re creative;
The sad truth is you're derivative.

Get into the groove and get out of my space.
I came here to work, not to hear from your face.
So why don't you just take it on home
'Cause if you want to whistle you should do it alone.

You'll whistle to anything! [x2]

Don't try to tell me that you're improvising
'Cause you're just boring—not mesmerizing.
"I once whistled Rhapsody in Blue—aren’t you impressed?"
Blow it out your nostrils 'cause you sound like a mess.
Puckered up like Lauren Bacall making moves on Bogie.
Like you had too many peppers on your spicy hoagie.

Know what you are? You're a measly
Blowhard! Blowhard! Blowhard! Blowhard!
Choke on this, you Whistler’s Momma’s Boy!

You'll whistle anything by Justin Bieber.
You'll whistle anything by the Black Eyed Peas.
You'll whistle anything by Michael Buble.
You'll whistle anything by Lady Gag-Gag.
You'll whistle anything by Ke$ha and U$her.
You'll whistle anything by Willow Smith or her brother.

You'll whistle anything by any bunch of industry stooges who pollinate your imagination with the offal from their face paint and jack up their merch prices till you crack your head on the debt ceiling when you should be giving your cash to decent masters of the nonverbal oral music arts, such as ourselves!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Confessions from a Crowded House: Scenes from a Sequel

The most memorable (and, in my mind, most legitimate) critique of my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville is how individualized the content is. Although there's a chapter on how God calls us together and the challenges that come with the call--not to mention the title of the book--on balance the book is a matter of personal spirituality, and at least one person called me on it.

You'd think, then, that I would have learned from my mistake and broadened the scope of whatever I wrote next. That didn't turn out to be the case; The Parable of the Unexpected Guest is similarly personal, and so suffers a wee bit from the me-'n'-Jesus menace that plagues so much of contemporary evangelical writing. (I did, in my defense, try to fold relationships and social responsibility into the story, and I do offer discussion questions for group reading. But it's still a me-'n'-Jesus story in the most literal sense.) Don't get me wrong; I think it's a good story and a helpful thought experiment, but I think there's more to be thought about, more to be experimented with.

Assuming that my publisher will want a breather before dealing with me as an author again, I thought I could start my secondary thought experiment here, with some imagined scenarios picking up where the Parable left off. So look for occasional posts with the header "Confessions from a Crowded House," which for the record is an homage to the great band of the same name and its singer-songwriter, the brilliant Neil Finn, who I got to see up close and personal recently with his new band Pajama Club.

This is as close to creative writing as I get, so you could really help me out if you seeded my clouds with some of the perplexities you've observed about living faithfully in communion with one another. And while you're at it, do me a favor and give The Parable of the Unexpected Guest a chance; it's super-cheap and may give you and your friends something new to think about, talk about, experiment with.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Authority, Credibility, Trust: Whose Book Do You Read?

I really think I need to just ask: what do you want in an author?

By "you" I mean you, Mom, or whoever else is reading this blog. By "author" I'm slightly more specific, if only because I'm selfish: I acquire nonfiction books for a mainstream evangelical Christian publishing house, so it's helpful to me to know whom you're willing to throw down money and time to read mainstream evangelical Christian nonfiction from. (That's right, I ended that sentence with a preposition. Deal it with.)

For example (and only for example; I'm not actually trying to decide between two books like this at the moment): Imagine you have before you three books contending with the thorny issue of immigration reform. One is written by a pastor with some experience dealing with immigration policy; one is written by a government official with a defined political persuasion who is also a professing Christian; one is written by a lay Christian with undocumented immigrant family members. Which book do you buy?

For the sake of this experiment, let's assume they all have basically the same position on immigration reform, only because I'm not asking about whether you read to be convinced or to have your opinions affirmed. I know that much media is consumed specifically for one or the other of those reasons (increasingly, I'm afraid, for the latter). The operative question in that instance isn't so much "What do you want in an author?" but "What do you want out of an author?"

What I'm trying to get at here, by contrast, is what you want in an author. Whose voice is most credible to you? Whose voice you trust the most? The person with positional spiritual authority (the pastor)? The person with professional credibility (the immigration official)? Or the person with a personal story?

I find myself drawn increasingly away from the folks whose positions give them gravitas, whose social location demands my deference, and increasingly to the people who have survived the challenges that capture my imagination. In as politically volatile and socially turbulent a time as this, when so many of our decisions must be made from the gut because we lack the time to turn them around in our heads, when our positions of authority involve a whole host of prior commitments and an implicit commitment to protect the status quo, I trust the people whose experience is most visceral--not so much the ones who have made their fortunes on the subject but those for whom the subject has cost them dearly.

Sometimes, of course, these three personas converge in one form or another: the immigration official is herself the child of immigrants; the pastor serves and loves a church with a significant undocumented population. Not everyone is ordained or licensed or otherwise credentialed through the authority structures we've initiated or (more likely) inherited); but everybody has a story. And increasingly for me it's their story--even those who are so accredited--that is most authoritative, that most merits my trust.

But that's me. And if that's not you, I'd really like to know, because I want to sell you some books.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Focus on the Sway

I had two completely different conversations in one day. That’s actually a rarity for me; I spend eight hours a day at a job that fits me to a T, talking to a relatively closed set of people (they all orbit a common faith statement, and most of them went to Wheaton College). So when people go in utterly different directions, I tend to sit up and take notice.

I guess I shouldn’t say “utterly” or “completely different.” There was still a profound underlying homogeneity between my two conversation partners—both white, both artful, both based in California, both likely willing to sign the same faith statement, neither Wheaton alumnae. They may use the same hair care products, for all I know. I speak in such superlatives in part because their differences shine more brightly through all that sameness, and because I feel myself pulled in two directions by the logic of both their positions. They aren’t disputing each other; they’re simply articulating what they value, and I can see why they value it and find myself swayed by it. And then the other one talks, and I sway the other way.

The issue is pragmatic: What constitutes “success” in Christian witness? The guy swears he’s “not a size person by ANY means,” but he measures the effectiveness of a church or ministry (including his own effectiveness) by the number of people who convert and stick with it. A large church is likely doing something right; a small church is likely doing something wrong. He focuses, you might say, on “the fruit” of witness.

The woman, by contrast, spoke repeatedly about the value of “attraction” rather than “promotion.” She wanted to evoke in people a neglected desire for God, without getting caught up in sealing any deals or making explicit appeals to conversion. She focuses, I’d suggest, on “the seeds” of witness.

For him, ambiguity and open-endedness in conversations about God are suspect; she holds a similar suspicion of conversations about God characterized by confrontation or blanket assertions. Like I say, I’m swayed by the logic of both positions; so swayed, in fact, that I get a little dizzy.

I suppose each of them made a decision at some point—probably a more complicated decision, and more informed by temperament and personal history, than either of them might acknowledge—that the right “ethic” of Christian witness was at one or the other end of that spectrum—a focus on the seeds or on the fruits. I don’t suppose either of them would reject the legitimacy of the other position in whole cloth; their faith statements and cultural location are too similar for that. But I do think they would privately, even subconsciously, pooh-pooh each other’s position, and each would judge me a little bit by how closely I align with them on this particular spectrum.

On balance, I think I find myself more suspicious of the fruit side than the seed side, for all sorts of reasons only some of which are objective. I suspect, for example, that the uncle who told me to stop writing so much about God would feel more comfortable around me if I followed the trajectory of the seed lady; being a people-pleasing insecure member of a family full of strong personalities, I’m almost always looking for ways to not be weird. I also fancy myself as a creative type, and fruits are far too final for comfort. I’d much rather start something than finish something. And even moreso, I think of myself as more personal than local—conversations involving God for me are more a matter of the moment for the conversation partners, and less a matter of drawing lines and guarding orthodoxy.

That’s a nice, ambiguous, seedy way of saying that I think giving witness to the claim of God on our world and our lives is an undeniable expectation on people of Christian faith, and that toward that end, seed conversations draw fewer lines and carry more hope than fruit conversations. Fruit conversations, I hasten to add, aren’t hopeless, and seed conversations aren’t lineless. But many of the lines we draw in our pursuit of the fruits of witness I suspect are pretty arbitrary; they emerge for the sake of convenience and efficiency and self-protection. We should, I think, strive for a world with as few lines as are necessary. Meanwhile, there’s always room for hope.

So, pooh-pooh away, all you fruit-types. Or better, make your case for swaying me your way; it’s clear to me that you’ll probably at least temporarily succeed. We ambiguous, seedy types seem to enjoy the euphoria that a good sway can offer.

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'...