Monday, April 16, 2012

The Pilgrimage Is Never Over: My Review of Chasing Francis

Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's TaleChasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale by Ian Morgan Cron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At the end of 2011 I was invited to write a brief review for a best-of list. The book was Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me, a memoir by Ian Morgan Cron about growing up in a car wash. Just kidding. The title was as accurate to the content as it was creatively uncreative, and the book was absorbing. I wrote an effusive review of the book and resolved that I would eventually, finally, read his first book, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale.

Then I forgot about it for a while.

Then I had the chance to meet Cron, where I told him face to face how much I enjoyed his memoir, and where he asked what I thought of his first book, and where I had to red-facedly admit I'd let it slip by. I was embarrassed for a number of reasons: Chasing Francis has been influential on a number of my friends as they think about living out their faith in the twenty-first century, and because I admire them, I really should have read what they admire by now. As an editor for a Christian publisher, I've solicited endorsements for several books from Cron in the few years since Chasing Francis was released, itself a tacit acknowledgment of his importance, but never bothered to read what this important writer had written. And perhaps most embarrassingly, I had advance notice that I might get to meet him, might get to talk about his writing with him, and I still let his book go unread. Lame lame lame all around. In any event, Cron was gracious and, in an act of Franciscan charity, gave me two copies of the book. This being my personal Year of Overdue Books, I chalked it up to providence and read Chasing Francis over the weekend--maybe a bit faster than I should have--and thoroughly enjoyed it.

My copies of the book bear the subtitle "A Novel," which is a change from the subtitle at first release: "A Pilgrim's Tale." That change is unfortunate, as calling it a novel sets up the wrong expectations of the book and would likely disappoint. This isn't a novel; it's "wisdom literature," a style that's been used to good effect in recent years by philosophers such as Peter Kreeft and Christian gadfly Brian McLaren, among many others. Cron's goal for the reader in this particular wisdom writing is not to enjoy a subversive work of literary fiction but to enter into a time of reflection by way of imagined scenario: an accomplished but increasingly frayed pastor of an evangelical church, who represents the angst felt by many such pastors and laypeople today (including myself, I freely admit), loses it in the pulpit one day and is forced into a leave of absence by his elder board (who represent the tyranny of sameness that actively, though unconsciously, suppresses the redemptive imagination in all kinds of settings, not just the church), and sets out on a pilgrimage to the world of St. Francis of Assisi, the medieval child of privilege whose epiphany on the road to war led him to arguably (and it's a strong argument) rescue Christianity from its own obsolescence.

That's a long sentence, but it gets the gist of the book across. The main character, pastor Chase Falson, reads a little thin and implausible at the beginning; so does his church, actually. Both sound more like an amalgamation of evangelicals from all over America, moreso than a congregation specifically set in New England; Chase's initial ignorance of St. Francis, his casualness in the face of a startlingly unsympathetic reaction to his breakdown, his utter innocence in the face of betrayal by the congregation that he planted and cultivated--this initial setup serves the story almost too well. I would have liked to see Chase's feet of clay a little more clearly in the beginning.

But to ask for that is to judge the book as a novel, which is not what it is. And you'll grow quickly to root for and identify with Chase as he flies to Italy and takes up with several Franciscan brothers and sisters, conveniently speakers of English and mostly American, and makes the compelling case that the church at the beginning of the third millennium CE looks a lot like the church at the beginning of the second millennium CE: unmitigated materialism, regular scandals of the predictable sort, and a growing irrelevancy to the daily lives of loosely committed adherents. Francis, who expressed his faith in such wild and crazy ways as kissing lepers, walking through a war zone unarmed to offer a blessing to a Muslim emir, and stripping naked in front of a crowd to divest himself of his family's wealth, was a shock to the church's system--just the shock, it turns out, that the church needed. A Christian counterculture spread across Europe in Francis's wake, taking vows of poverty and simplicity, blessing communities in real, tangible and agendaless ways, and just generally taking the words of Jesus really, really seriously while taking the serious challenges of life lightly and joyfully. No wonder Chase falls in love with Francis; no wonder he has his world rocked.

I was surprised and impressed at the end of the book by how Chase was able to offer a vision for the contemporary church that is informed by Francis but achievable by modern evangelicals. Cron identifies five themes that capture the heart of Francis's ministry and challenge the mores and protocols of today's churches: transcendence, community, beauty, dignity and meaning. That these sound a little "duh" to me is a tribute both to how effectively Cron portrayed the zeitgeist in this book (he's not the only person to have been thinking along these lines in the past decade) and how influential his book has been in the six years since its release. The most interesting books do exactly that: they make you think that you already accepted the premise by showing how self-evident the premise is, even while honestly representing how controversial the premise will be. That's what good wisdom literature does too, frankly: we get fooled by the parable into thinking that we're something we've never yet been, and then we start to live into that something in redemptive and joyful ways. Chasing Francis is fiction in service to the pursuit of truth.

A running tension throughout the book is the contrast between evangelicalism and Catholicism, and the mutual suspicion between the two traditions. I've personally been on both sides of this chasm, which may be why I got this book so much more quickly than I've gotten similar treatises by other writers. Brian McLaren and others have written compellingly about the latest emergence in the arc of Christianity's history, and I have a great deal of sympathy toward the insights from those writings. But this look backward, this story of a textbook evangelical learning from an unmitigated Catholic, is for me touched with a special grace. There's no going back, Chase seems to understand, as he resists moving permanently to Italy, converting to Catholicism and joining a traditional Franciscan order. But there is historical continuity to the work of God in the world through the church: when there's nothing new under the sun, then what Francis discovered in his day can be rediscovered and freshly applied in our day. We move forward into history best when we carry the best of our history with us. As one of the priests in Chase's adventure reminds him, and us, "the pilgrimage is never over."

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Friday, April 13, 2012

An Essay Is an Attempt: A Review of The Lifespan of a Fact

The Lifespan of a FactThe Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"What is truth?" Pontius Pilate spits out that question, as much to himself as anyone, in the middle of his heated debate with Jesus Christ on the eve of his execution. The story is told every year during Holy Week, the most sacred seven days of the Christian calendar. It happened to be Holy Week as I read The Lifespan of a Fact, a short book that like Holy Week centers on a death and wrestles with the nature of truth. Unlike Holy Week, this story has no happy ending, no resurrection to redeem the tragedy. It's just two men arguing over the nature of truth while a third man leaps to his death.

OK, that's not exactly what the book is. A slim 123 pages of text, the book is based on an essay by John D'Agata about a young man's suicide in Las Vegas, written for a journal that employs interns and has them, among other things, serve as fact checkers for its content. Jim Fingal happily and naively (and a bit too familiarly) challenges some of the details in the opening lines of D'Agata's essay; D'Agata bristles at the cheekiness of the content and refuses to either defend or correct his loose use of facts; and the game is on. Fingal wants precision and clarity and coherence; D'Agata wants rhythmic sentences and thematic symmetry and literary beauty. They argue back and forth, their passions get the better of them, they bang their heads against each other's walls. They get nowhere with each other, raging back and forth while a young man muddles through a day that ends with him taking an elevator to the top of a casino, waving goodbye to a security guard and falling 9-make-that-8 seconds until landing on the ground below, dead.

The heart of the question between these two begins with the basic question of what the article is: is it essay-as-literature, as D'Agata contends, such that facts are secondary and modular utilities in the search for truth; or is it essay as explanation, which Fingal assumes and which, frankly, must have been the assumption of his boss as well, hence the assignment. D'Agata's casual relationship to factual precision is admittedly shocking, and he waits a frustratingly long time in the book to even begin to justify his approach and explain his writing ethic. Meanwhile Fingal is frustrating throughout, dissecting each detail of every sentence and passing judgment on it as only a punk intern can, trying to prove his mettle with the wrong set of proofs. We reach the impasse between these two within the first couple of pages, and wait nearly ninety pages before really broaching the question that plagued Pilate as he sentenced Jesus to death. And even then, we're haunted by the fact, undisputed on either side of the debate, that all 123 pages of back-and-forth have sprung from, and none of the 123 pages can remedy, the tragic death of a young man in a city that is far to resigned to the shocking numbers of suicides that plague its citizens year after year after year. As Fingal puts it, in a moment of moral clarity that is almost as tragic as the event itself, "Even if everything that's in question could be verified by unbiased third-party witnesses . . . well, then . . . I don't know. I'd have done my job. But wouldn't he still be dead?"

You will choose a side in this debate between D'Agata and Fingal, but it won't be easy, because both are clearly flawed characters, reacting out of their own insecurities and righteous indignation. They also both are great exemplars of their convictions; they confront each other with conviction and intellectual heft. It'll boil down to whether (a) you think an essay in a journal is a work of art or a piece of information and (b) you think truth is something that can be uncovered only by an amalgamation of facts or by the assertion of meaning. You might also be influenced by which of the debaters you find more obnoxious. D'Agata states his point concisely: "An essay is an attempt, Jim. Nothing else." Fingal states his conviction equally pungeantly: "You've got to ask yourself how far on the fringes of facticity someone is if not even Wikipedia agrees with them." And both of them ultimately fade to silence, appropriately, in the mutual acknowledgment that whether precise and accurate or mosaic and felt, unnecessary death is tragedy to be mourned and a wrong to be fought, never something to be trifled with.

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Sunday, April 08, 2012

Christ Is Risen, Hallelujah

"Left the house this morning
Bells ringing filled the air
Wearin' the cross of my calling
On wheels of fire I come rollin' down here."

"May I feel your blood mix with mine."

Happy Easter Sunday.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Consent of the Consumer: My GoodReads Review of Unequal Protection

Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human RightsUnequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights by Thom Hartmann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A couple of years ago I asked a friend who works with a progressive evangelical magazine whether they had anything in the hopper about corporate personhood. I had become intrigued by the term and a little wigged out by the concept, and I was looking for something to read (and, frankly, something to write) about it. My friends quickly (and wryly conspiratorially) responded, "No, but that's a good idea. You should write it." I smiled and inwardly leaped with joy over the opening, and then I went home and promptly forgot about it.

Not before adding a book to my wish-list, though. I had heard Thom Hartmann mention his book Unequal Protection on his radio show, and I thought it would be good research for my fantasy article. Because the people around me are not slackers like me, I got the book a couple of months later for my birthday. And then I let it sit around for a couple of years--until now, when I included it on my must-read list for my self-imposed Year of Overdue Books.

One of the reasons it took me so long to start Unequal Protection--and, quite frankly, one of the reasons it took me so long to finish it--is that it's crazy long. Clocking in at twenty-seven chapters and 330 pages (plus acknowledgments, plus notes), the book is almost as big as the multinationals it confronts. The length is only partly justified by the scope of the issue and the depth of research, which is admittedly impressive: I learned a heap ton about the issues surrounding corporate personhood, the world and national history behind it, and the breadth of implications from it. But much of the length is not so much daunting as it is frustrating: Hartmann narrates in great detail the way in which he acquired some of his information; he makes repeated passing reference to right-wing corporate-stooge conspiracies such as scrubbing the Internet of the facts surrounding corporate bad behavior; he gives the first forty-eight pages (about a seventh of the book) to the clerical error that lies at the foundation of the principle of full human rights to corporations. I'm an armchair historian; I dig this stuff, and I got worn out by it. I blame the editor, who should have pushed Hartmann to keep the book under 300 pages and winnowed the storytelling and politicizing much more aggressively. The kind of laissez faire editing on display in Hartmann's book doesn't serve the author or the reader.

Sorry. I had to get that off my chest. Given that rant you might be surprised by how enamored I am by the book, but I am enamored by it. Hartmann knows this issue inside and out, and he knows it (and articulates it) in really critical ways. We see, thanks to Hartmann, the concern for governmental safeguards against (and tension with) corporate power among the American Founding Fathers, who revolted against England at least partly because of the economic tyranny of the East India Trading Company. We read Jefferson and Paine and Adams and Madison in their own words attacking the problem of corporae hubris from their own distinct angles but never legitimizing the free market rampages so prevalent in our world today. We see the logic of corporations pursuing full human rights even as we see the absurdity of human beings giving it to them. We see the very real negative impact of corporations privileging profits over basic human values--again, as is logical for an organization that exists to make money and minimize risk for its investors, but is inherently against the best interests of every human being in its path. We see corporations acting in ways that are illegal and even physically impossible for humans to act--hopping from country to country without the burden of changing citizenship, existing in multiple places at one time, that sort of thing--and all the while we watch them continue to appeal to human rights to continue to do so. We see, by looking first into the past, what may very well be our near future thanks to the unrelenting, systematic global human rights grab of these fundamentally nonhuman entities: the decline of democracy and the return to feudalism.

Feudalism was the economic system that dominated the world prior to the Enlightenment. Political power was a calculus of military might and economic strength: some people owned the land or controlled the seas; the rest of us worked the land and stayed put. Human rights were a minority concern; might made right, and the weak dealt with it. Democracy's long history, as much as anything, is an ever-expanding acknowledgment that justice and human dignity, while not a priority for feudal lords, are natural rights and even essential to the divine order of things. Those that take the privilege of determining the destinies of people "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed," Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, and the people retain the right to change things when prudence, justice and human dignity demand it. It was the collusion of British government and the corporations it chartered that whittled away at the dignity and rights of early American society, and it was the assertion of democracy that put government and business in their rightful place. As Hartmann ably demonstrates in his book, the task of business ever since has been to get its power back, which it can only achieve by weakening the duly elected government of the people, thereby disenfranchising them and relocating power in boardrooms and tax havens all over the world.

I sound like a conspiracy theorist, I know. And the book certainly does make one look askance at every poor innocent business one comes across. But it's hard to come out of this book not thinking that Hartmann is right, that we are near the end of a long, sustained erosion of democratic government, and that to not reassert the "rights of man" (Thomas Paine) over against the rights of corporations is to acquiesce to multinational, disembodied overlords.

Here's what I would have liked to see more of in Hartmann's book. I would have liked to see a more robust discussion of feudalism--its historical context and its essential elements. I would have liked to see Hartmann line up "human" values against "corporate" values for a straightforward compare-contrast. I would have liked, most of all, to see some very plain-spoken, incremental and concrete steps for mere human beings like me to take to strengthen democratic governments in their interactions with multinational corporations, to hold those governments more accountable for those ways in which they collude with or acquiesce to the corporations they ought to be protecting us from. Corporate personhood is a daunting concept, made more overwhelming by the 330-page expose Hartmann has written. I'm just wee little me; what can I do to turn this thing around?

It's entirely possible that Hartmann has written a shorter, more focused, more constructive book. If you know of it or something like it, I'd love to hear about it. But even though I wish this book did somethings a little differently, I'm very glad I read it, and I'm glad Hartmann wrote it. Forewarned, they say, is forearmed, and knowledge, they say, is power--and power is what we need, what we have, and what's at stake.

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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'...