Friday, September 30, 2011

The Real Realists: Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American PilgrimageThe Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's hard to communicate how very much I enjoyed this book. It took me forever to read, but that's partly because I didn't want to rush my way through it. On its face it's pretty innocuous--four Catholic writers from the mid-twentieth century and how their lives intersected--but the intersections are more profound than mere acquaintance, correspondence or coincidence. Walker Percy and Thomas Merton, for example, apparently only met once and didn't actually click, and Merton and Dorothy Day never met, only corresponded. Flannery O'Connor bears almost no formal connection to any of them, beyond a bit of correspondence with Percy and Merton's surprisingly familiar eulogy of her. So the literal ties barely bind them to one another, and yet taken together they can be considered to define American Catholicism before Vatican II, and the American post-war postmodern spiritual condition along with it.

I've read quite a bit of Merton and the slightest bit of O'Connor; I'm a fan from afar of Dorothy Day and almost completely unfamiliar with Walker Percy. But in the terms laid out by Paul Elie, by which we're meant to understand them, I found myself toggling back and forth regularly among all four of them as saints and icons of my own spiritual pilgrimage. Elie starts with a common thread of a desire for direct experience--first of life in its fullness, then of faith in its full depth. Merton and Day both experience profound spiritual conversions, guided second-handedly by the writers they read but driven by a desire for a direct encounter with God. Both became icons of Catholicism for the twentieth century and moderating voices during the turbulent anti-war, pro-civil-rights 1960s. O'Connor and Percy, Southern whites and cradle Catholics both, explored the human condition through the lens of Catholic theology without seeing their art corrupted by their piety. The "grotesque," O'Connor's word for her milieu, was the point of entry for both of them to a deeper understanding of grace. Both wrote uncomfortably about the South during perhaps its most uncomfortable era, but as local and contextual as their work is, it transcends place and time to continue to make us uncomfortable.

I found myself moved as each of the four died, years apart from each other, each in some ways more tragic than the previous. O'Connor, the benign racist who dreamed progressive dreams for her beloved South but resented the intrusion of outsiders, died first from complications brought about by lupus. Merton, the monk who strayed from his calling and perhaps never should have been cloistered in the first place, was electrocuted halfway around the world from home. Day died at a ripe old age, content and serene as one might expect a candidate for sainthood to be, but her death and the mystique that's surrounded her since have presented peculiar challenges for those who have followed in her footsteps. By the time Percy, the least natural writer of the four, died, he had seemingly deconstructed himself again and again with each new novel, in an effort to shake off the shackles his readers had forced on him. We get the sense in Percy's death that he was right from the start, that "even the rare authentically direct experience is spoiled by modern self-consciousness" (p. 278), that our desire to be fully human is hopelessly complicated by the culture we've cultivated that encourages mediated experience, secondhand faith, indirect encounters, half-humanness. Only God, any one of these four might argue, can save us now.

The impact of two world wars, a holocaust and nuclear madness on the idea of a God who created us and continues to care for us is well documented. But the idea of God, these four would suggest, is not the issue. "We who live the contemplative life," Merton acknowledged, "have learned by experience that one cannot know God as long as one seeks to solve 'the problem of God.'" Instead we ought to avail ourselves of God, to look for God in the shadow of the people who surround us, to listen for God in their laments, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. An odd call to live in the real world from people who made their marks as writers in the marketplace of ideas, but 472 pages later I'm convinced that Merton and O'Connor and Percy and Day were the real realists; everybody else was one degree removed. Would that we all could be realists of their ilk; the world would be more as God imagined it, and a much better place.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Day in the Life of the Unexpected Guest

One of the disadvantages of publishing with your employer is that you have more access to information than is healthy for an author to have. I've published with InterVarsity Press before, with Comic Book Character, and this time I told myself I'd be more mature and respectful of the boundaries between author and publisher, put there for the benefit of both. So far I've done OK, although my coworkers may beg to differ. But this week I got some unsolicited happy news about The Parable of the Unexpected Guest that I wanted to hear more about. So I broke protocol and contacted Joe Hout, an InterVarsity campus staffworker at the University of North Carolina--Greensboro, who had just ordered a hundred copies of the booklet. I asked him why and what he planned to do with them, and he very graciously ignored my brashness and sent the following response, which he also (and even more graciously) invited me to share with the world.
This semester the InterVarsity chapter at UNC Greensboro has been looking at the Lord's Prayer. We have had a series of talks where each one takes a part of that prayer and looks deeper. The week of "Hallowed be Your name" we talked about God's Holiness. We studied Psalm 24; God is holy and we are not, we don't measure up. He is over there on the holy hill and none of us can ascend it, but then there is a knock at the door. The King is at our door wanting to come in.

My mentor, Jim, who I study psalms with, had me read My Heart Christ's Home the week I studied Ps. 24. That same week I received the mailing from IVP with new books, and here was your book. I read it and loved it, was brought to tears as I reflected on God's great love for me. I shared it with my wife after reading it. That week I was meeting with Jim again and brought the book with me to show him the My Heart Christ's Home for this generation. Before I could show it to him, he said it would be great to get everyone in our chapter that book in light of the talk on God's holiness. I pulled out your book and showed it to him, and he offered to buy 100 for our chapter. Our chapter has about 45 students involved, but we wanted students to be able to give them to a friend if they wanted.

Tonight at 7 we will be giving out the books at our weekly meeting. Tonight's topic is about Forgiveness of Sins. We play a game at the beginning of our meeting and the winner gets to order any book from IVPress they want (well, not all books, $15 or less books). Tonight as a twist, after the game everyone will get a prize, The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. I will then later bring that up in the talk for the night talking about grace; you did not earn the book or win it, but you still received it. The idea also is for every person who reads it for them to follow up with me to see what they thought.
This is, quite frankly, almost exactly what I had hoped would happen with the booklet. That's why it's so little; that's why it's so cheap. It doesn't take a ton of cash to put one in the hands of your neighbor, your small group, even your whole community, and see how they react to it. Even if you disagree with this and that in it, it's meant to generate conversations about who God is, what he expects of us, and what we expect of him. If you're interested in exploring a similar strategy to Joe's, let me know and we'll try to set something up.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Joy's Shadow and Joy in the Shadows

I sort of stepped in it the other day. I happened to read an article by my friend Kent about the first day of school--Kent is the father of a new kindergartener and the codirector of Haiti Partners, which works primarily on education issues in Haiti--and thought it was good and poignant, so I retweeted it. (You can read the article here.) What got me into a muddle was my quoting Kent alongside the link: "Joy is always accompanied by a shadow if you see the world realistically." I quoted it because, honestly, who's going to click on a link without at least a taste of what's on the other side of it? But also, I agree with it, and I think it's provocative in a really positive sense. It also, apparently, is provocative in the "slippery-slope" sense of Christian orthodoxy. I got a very quick tweeted response to my post from another friend suggesting that a fruit of the Holy Spirit carries no shadow, that to look for joy's shadow is to deny the joy of the Lord. I'm heavily paraphrasing, of course; my friend had only 140 characters to communicate his concern. But I got his point; I was flirting with heterodoxy, or something like that. So, editor that I am, I tried to make the reader happy by throwing out an alternate option: "Existential joy is always accompanied by a shadow;whereas theological joy always attends to the shadows." I copied Kent on the post because I thought he would find the back and forth interesting. It slipped my mind that he didn't know what led to this proposed edit, that by editing him I was tacitly (and unconsciously) distancing myself from his words, that I was--theologically, at least--throwing him under the bus. Editor that I am, I had pandered to the reader at the expense of the writer. Rookie blunder, I know. Sorry, Kent. Maybe it's the era we inhabit, or maybe it's my predilection, or maybe it's the truth, but I see most of life as improvised. We figure it out step by step, and we learn transcendent lessons mainly in the aftermath of hard experiences or troubling observations. We are each theological in our own way, in that we look for meaning in the events that unfold in our lives and map the world we walk through, and in the process we sketch a picture of our world's source and sustaining heart. We're all theologians, but we're mostly theologians after the fact. Christianity (and really all religions) make theological assertions before the fact--based of course on authoritative sources, not to mention the theological inferences of those who have gone before us. Doing so is a service; any journey is aided by tools that light the path and keep us cognizant of our ultimate destination. It helps us theologically to know that, although Jesus tells us "in this world you will have trouble," he also tells us to "take heart [for] I have overcome the world." It helps when we step out to trust theologically that we are accompanied by the Holy Spirit, who cultivates in us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, and that against these things there is no law--we won't be judged for being loving, joyful, peaceful, and so on. It helps to know these things ahead of time, and to call them to mind as we go, but it's not the whole picture. The whole picture includes Jesus walking from the courtyard to the cross, struggling under the weight of a beam and still bleeding from the beating he'd been given, looking left and right and telling weeping women not "Take heart! I have overcome the world!" but "Do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children." The whole picture includes lots and lots of shadows. It also includes joy, of course, but not the joy we sing about; Jesus didn't sing and dance his way to the cross but rather winced and moaned from the cross, taking courage and drawing strength from the joy set before him to say "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Joy is there in the hard cold facts of the world, but it's in the shadows. That's where it does its most important work. Martin Luther emphasized the paradoxical status of each Christian as simultaneously sinner and saint. To emphasize the one and neglect the other is to not see ourselves as we really are (or, perhaps more troubling, to not see our neighbor as he or she really is). This paradox is one of those many theological lights for our path and tool for our use in making sense of the world we find ourselves in. There's another paradox that I think is true but doesn't get as much press: we are simultaneously bearers of joy and lament. To lament is to view the world realistically and to hope that things change; to joy is to view the world theologically and to accept the reality we're presented with. They commingle in ways that are perplexing and confusing, but that also complement and inform one another. That's why we can celebrate the first day of school for our kids while simultaneously lamenting the life of poverty and persecution that a lack of education is condemning billions to. That's why we can recall the events of September 11, 2001, ten years latter with tears and even anger, while simultaneously enjoying our friends and family and flourishing on September 11, 2011. We lament in joy, but we also joyfully lament. As confusing as that is, it's a survival skill God is training us in, and it's a light God is regularly casting onto our path.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On the Tenth Anniversary of September 11, 2001

"The streets of my town are not what they were . . .
May we all find salvation in professions that heal . . ."

This song by Shawn Colvin helped me in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center. I hope it helps you too.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Getting Seen as Publishing Paradigm

There's a scene in the movie Jerry Maguire where Jerry, a sports agent, is desperately fighting for a win for his fledgling new-paradigm agency on hand at the NFL draft. Client number one is on everybody's minds as the hottest thing going; client number two is Rod Tidwell, a hotheaded, self-impressed but underperforming lesser prospect. Jerry has obligations to both clients, but honestly, client one gets the lion's share of his attention, while Rod Tidwell is little more than client number two.

Rod is not above demanding fair treatment, however, so he confronts Jerry. Jerry's solution is to orchestrate a "walk through the room." The two start at one end and slowly make their way to the other, stopping intermittently as Jerry introduces Rod to star players, head coaches, team owners and media representatives. This is Jerry's strategy for Rod: Rod needs to "get seen."

Twenty-four hours later, Jerry has only Rod left; client number two had betrayed him and signed with another agent last-minute. A year later, Rod is the hottest thing going, and Jerry and Rod both get a happy ending. Rod got seen, and the pieces fell into place.

This is how we do it, isn't it? We gain and sustain whatever credibility we have--whatever authority, trust and even so meaningless a commodity as relevance--simply (and, increasingly, only) by getting seen. Celebrity magazines run photos of stars buying toilet paper as evidence that they're "Just Like US!" They run bullet lists itemizing the restaurants and bars and after-Oscar parties and vacation resorts where famous people have been spotted. Celebrity is the new normal.

It's not just movie stars and pop singers, though: journalists and politicians alike clamor to be among those seen at places of devastation, or at restaurants that carry the mystique of "the people" of a particular place. And it's not just journalists and politicians, either. Laypeople post photos and videos from every corner of our experience. We track down our image and tag it. We deselect unflattering photographs and make our most flattering pictures our persona. We brand ourselves with the places we allow ourselves to be photographed, or where we manage to convince people to photograph us. We get seen, then we make sure people see us getting seen. And on and on it goes.

Authors--at least authors of nonfiction--used to be relatively protected from this semi-salacious global positioning strategy. Of course there was a guild of peers among which they were known, but beyond the guild an author's thesis allowed and even required them to transcend such silly stargazing. That's no longer the case, of course; even among their guild, let alone beyond it, authors of the most pragmatic, utilitarian tome have to get out there and hustle it.

A troubling gauge of a proposed book's success, then, is the author's perceived aspiration to celebrity, a perceived capacity to get seen often by the right people, with the right people, in the right places. Fortunately for their families, thanks to contemporary technologies, much of this will to celebrity can be done from the couch; much celebrity-cultivation can be conducted through friend and follower counts and blog posts gone viral. But it's not solely virtual; wannabe authors still have to get seen in the real world with the right people, places and things, so much so that one wonders what time they have left to write.

Some of them don't have time left to write, of course; hence the phenomenon of "ghost writers." While ghost writers have been around a long time, their prevalence is growing; these "unseen" people take whatever content a named/seen author has time to dash off and turn it into something coherent and readable. They get paid for their trouble, and in many cases they get some name recognition four or five printings/years/million copies sold down the line. But really, what does it profit a person to gain a lot of money while losing their personhood? Ghosts are, existentially as well as strategically, immaterial. It's easy for an author or a publisher to imagine replacing one ghost with another simply to cut costs or to try something new.

The net effect of "ghosting" is that the notion that a book is a collaborative exercise is made more concrete. Not just cover designers and sellers and marketers and editors and distributors and manufacturers are partners in an author's effort; now even the writing is outsourced. In such an age, content itself becomes almost an afterthought; where the author is, what company the author is keeping and who the author is wearing have the capacity to gradually eclipse what the author is thinking or feeling or saying--or, more accurately perhaps, the author becomes increasingly the gloss painted over an idea that comes entirely from elsewhere. I can imagine the day when two authors introduce themselves to one another in a green room somewhere. "What's your name?" the first one asks. "Legion," the other responds, "for we are many." "What a coincidence!" retorts the first. "That's my name too!"

I'm told that part of the idea behind ubuntu, a worldview with its origins in sub-Saharan tribal Africa, is the need to differentiate spirit-beings from real humans. "I see you," one greets another, to which the other responds, "I am seen." This is functionally equivalent to Rene Descartes's "I think, therefore I am," in the sense that the net effect is to establish the identity, even the reality, of a person. But what makes it different is the need for two people, not one; it's the community that makes the individual human. "It takes a village to raise a child" is not an insight easily arrived at through Cartesian philosophy, but it's almost fundamental to ubuntu.

(I must quickly note that I may be confusing my folk-origins of ubuntu with the mythology employed in the movie Avatar. I haven't seen Avatar, but I'm told the blue people greet one another with "I see you." That, of course, came from somewhere, which may well be from the concept of ubuntu. My apologies if I've inadvertently mashed up the seed of a continent's civilization with a cheeseball plot device from an overrated movie.)

Anyway, I don't know what to say about this troubling trend of authors divorcing themselves from the task of writing, or the uncomfortable acquiescence of the publishing industry to the notion that some people should be satisfied being ghosts instead of whole persons, or that readers are becoming increasingly satisfied "reading" what only famous people have "written." One net effect--even and perhaps especially in Christian publishing, where I work--may be that famous people will be joined by pretty people, witty people, and eventually those pesky people that you friend or follow or otherwise indulge just to get them off your back, as the only people who get book contracts.

If you think I'm being overly alarmist, look at photographs of the stars of pop music before MTV and after: a shocking percentage of late-1970s rock stars were unattractive, whereas a couple of years later every star had a stylist, and no one without a stylist was a star. Video killed the radio star, indeed. Then consider the past eight presidential elections and ask yourself which candidate was more likeable, the one you'd rather have a beer with, and you'll find that the more natural entertainer was in every case the one elected leader of the free world. Then move to television and consider why Levi Johnston and Kate Gosselin and Snookie get to do whatever they want whenever they want to whomever they want, including publish a bestseller; it's because they wore down our defenses with their constant barrages of self-assertion.

This is the ephemeral environment we live and move and publish in. To be a writer is either to be utterly anonymous (the ghost) or arena-ready (the celebrity). There is precious little middle left for the craftspeople and heralds of messages who toil in private as a service to the public. As an author myself, I'm worried--mainly because I'm not popular or charismatic or good looking enough to be a celebrity, and I'm far too vain to be utterly anonymous. As an editor I'm worried--mainly because it takes a village to publish a book, and I'd rather live and work in a village populated by people than by legions and ghosts.

Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: there is a God who is Lord of all things seen and unseen, and to this God nothing is unseen. This God saw a slave girl named Hagar, who had escaped from harsh treatment into the harsh desert pregnant and alone, and offered her direction and purpose and hope. Hagar called this God "the One who sees me," and this God gave her a name and a story in his book. This God sent a letter to the church in Sardis, accusing them of having "a reputation of being alive" but in actuality settling for being mere ghosts. Nevertheless, this God offered those who defied the ways of their world to "never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels." No person is unseen by this God, and no publisher or author or reader or human being should ever forget it.

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'...