Tuesday, September 25, 2012

This Cross Kills Elitists

In the Year of Our Lord CCCXII, Roman Emperor Constantine beheld a vision in the sky of a cross, made of a spear, bearing the message "By This, Conquer." Shortly thereafter the destinies of the Roman Empire and the Christian Church were married, and they begat and begat and begat, and have been begetting ever since.

Brian McLaren in his new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? briefly entertains an alternative history: What if Constantine had seen, for example, a bowl and towel--reminiscent of Jesus' foot-washing episode on the night he was betrayed--and the message "By This, Serve"? Or if Constantine had seen a table with bread and wine--alluding to the elements of Christian communion--and the message "Around This, Reconcile"? What if Constantine had seen something other than a symbol of war, mashed up with a symbol of deliverance?

Frankly, I think McLaren is being a bit silly. "Conquer" is language an emperor can work with; by contrast, "serve" and "reconcile" are meaningless, even alien terms. The whole vision would have been incomprehensible, easily dismissed. Maybe "By this [communion table] or this [bowl and towel] conquer" would have worked, but I think a more cautionary vision would be more interesting: "By this [cross] shall you be conquered," perhaps--or, the image that's lately captured my fancy: "This cross kills elitists."

The great American protest musician Woody Guthrie decorated his guitars with the phrase "This machine kills fascists"--supposedly an allusion to fighter pilots in the Spanish Civil War--as an implicit message to the powers-that-be that their days were numbered. It was ironic, of course: a guitar can't kill anyone. Oh, I suppose it could if you tried hard enough: if you took the strings off and choked someone with them, maybe, or if you broke the car into shards and splintered someone to death. Highly unlikely though. A guitar, in the hands of most everyone, doesn't kill. The music, though . . . the music could, conceivably, topple empires.

In another era, a different symbol would offer a similar message. Who, after all, is more elitist than an emperor, inheritor of a life station equated by the people with gods? Such a person may be a fascist, but only because why wouldn't he (or she) be? If you had the authority and the funding to make everyone fall in line behind you and do your bidding, wouldn't you? And so fascism, I think, is a byproduct of a more insidious spiritual problem: elitism. And who is more elitist than the most powerful person in the world?

I am, I suppose. We live in an era of democratized elitism. We all (in the West at least) have experienced the privilege of bending reality to our will; we can have whatever we want whenever we want, on demand. We apply our experience of consumer sovereignty to our politics and culture, so that those who don't bend to our will are enemies to be vanquished. We're practical fascists, but we're everyday elitists.

This cross, though: it kills elitists. The ground is level before it; on the far side of it we are all brothers and sisters with one father--all parts of the same body with one head. Our claims to cosmic sovereignty are crucified on it; our wants are purified through it; our lives are transformed by it. As much as we might desire and even presume ourselves to be kings and queens of the world, by the cross all our elitist aspirations are conquered.

The world would look very different had Constantine seen the vision "This Cross Kills Elitists." Only two options would have remained for him: forswear his elitism, lay down his crown and transform the way the world understands power and leadership; or wipe Christianity off the map--in the same way Herod tried to wipe Christianity off the map in the Year of Our Lord I, when Jesus was born, fulfilling prophecies and announcing a different kind of kingdom. That didn't work out so well for Herod, and I daresay it wouldn't have worked out so well for Constantine. He's lucky he saw something else, frankly.

You can't change the past, I guess. But I think this cross still kills elitists--all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding--and that means each of us is faced, daily, with Constantine's choice: side with the elitists, or side with the cross.

The good news is, though this cross kills elitists, by this cross every elitist might become a new creation--a different kind of person, fit for a different kind of kingdom.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Gentle Force: Brian McLaren's Case for the Book

I've just started reading Brian McLaren's new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road, graciously sent me by his editor/publisher, Wendy Grisham. It's good so far--big shocker, as McLaren is a very good writer and has a real command of how a book flows and moves. I was converted almost immediately from my initial skepticism about what I thought was a pretty weird title to enthusiasm for it--simply by how McLaren riffed on and ultimately subverted the contemporary suspicion that religion is a joke. I love that sort of thing.

McLaren is making the case for a strong, benevolent approach to faith: adherents who wholeheartedly embrace their distinct religious identity while giving honor and kindness to adherents of other faiths, even wishing them well and working toward their well-being. Scandalous, I know. Jesus said it in five words: "Love your neighbor as yourself"; for even as effective a writer as McLaren, such a thesis takes 273 pages (plus two pages of acknowledgments).

Now, some of that length is simply wordiness; forty-five pages in and I find myself thinking Yeah, yeah, you've already made that point. But what a caffeinated and impatient reader like me takes as redundancy is, in McLaren's mind (I suspect) a careful ellipticism, leading the reader slowly and carefully along a spiraled path, with plenty of secure touchpoints along the way, toward a confident embrace of his thesis: that we really should love our neighbor as ourselves. Such is the nature of persuasion in an age of tribalized conflict: any provocative premise must be handled slowly, with great care.

Today I read the following little bit, which is encouraging to me as a book publishing professional (though my colleagues may beg to differ): in McLaren's view, books are particularly useful tools in forming, informing and reforming people's core convictions and fundamental self-understanding. In a world of blaring headlines, in a world where everyone can point to the teeth-marks of at least one sound bite, a book can be as gentle as it is forceful, as careful as it is controversial.

Identity formation--and reformation--takes time and can't be forced or pushed. It involves many dangers, toils, and snares--threats and setbacks, wrong turns and recoveries. Even under the best of conditions, there are limits to the speed by which a religious identity can come of age and face the challenges before it. Perhaps that's why a book like this can be important: it can provide privacy, time, and space for people to consider the unsettling and dangerous proposal of an identity change. . . . [A] book makes no demands. It remains easy to put down and easy to ignore. That very gentleness can be its greatest power. It is hard to defend against something that is not aggressive.
Nice, huh? I may share it with some authors or should-be authors I know. Lest we overemphasize the unique value of a book, however, let me also draw your attention to the potential power of a tweet, as demonstrated in the same passage:

It is hard to defend against something that is not aggressive.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Cry Like an Angel: My Review of Diamond in the Rough by Shawn Colvin

Diamond in the Rough: A MemoirDiamond in the Rough: A Memoir by Shawn Colvin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I remember where I was when I first encountered Shawn Colvin. I was in a Best Buy in Bloomington, Illinois, in the spring of my freshman year. Her album Steady On was sitting on an end-cap display in the new music section; it looked good, and I was feeling consumeristic, so I bought it. I probably, quite frankly, put it on my Discover Card, as I was wont to do back then, which means I'm probably still paying for it. That being said, it was worth the money.

Shawn Colvin's music has shown up at a lot of significant moments in my life. Her cover of "Every Little Thing He Does Is Magic" was playing while my wife and I enjoyed a poolside meal at a resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, during our honeymoon. I sat with my sister on the floor of the student center at Northwestern University while Colvin moved effortlessly from her song "Polaroids" into the chorus of "Just My Imagination" by the Temptations. I bought her album Whole New You in a Borders Bookstore that no longer exists. And on September 11, 2001, I sought solace in her song "Cry Like an Angel" as I tried to make sense of the violent deaths of more than three thousand people.

All the feelings associated with those moments came back when I learned that she had written a memoir, Diamond in the Rough. I gobbled it up and enjoyed every nibble, although I'm not sure I would have been as enthralled had I not already been a fan. Diamond in the Rough isn't so much a memoir, in the sense of a book that mines an event or setting or relationship for some universal meaning, as it is an autobiography. It's a book for fans, first and foremost. I don't mean that disrespectfully, but I do think if someone saw my four-star rating for a memoir and bought it without prior connection to Colvin, they'd be disappointed with their reading experience.

That being said, it was, for me, a great reading experience. Colvin is a singer-songwriter, and such people are uniquely gifted storytellers, if not always the most articulate interpreters of stories. Songwriters tell stories in song, and so the meaning is usually intentionally obscured. Not so in a book, though: Colvin tells her life story compellingly, taking us through several distinct chapters--a childhood occasionally disrupted by family relocation; a young life on the road as a traveling musician; a more settled but arguably less stable life as a New York musician; an award-winning recording career; a post-major-label singer-songwriter's schedule--all with a through line that involves addiction, depression, anxiety and turbulent romantic relationships. No great surprises or big new insights here; we sadly have come to expect substance abuse, emotional hardship and complicated relationships of our celebrated artists. They're sad stories in many cases, but they're told here with the perspective of time passed and life recovered. Like a good storyteller Colvin can find the grace and humor in each chapter.

I think one of the best reason for reading books by musicians and other artists (such as Steve Martin and Joe Jackson, for example) is the window such books provide into the artistic mind and the creative process. Colvin's songs are in the foreground of her later chapters--once she's committed herself to songwriting and recording. I learned a lot about the songs on Steady On that has since enriched my listening; I learned about her later albums as well, having my suspicions confirmed, for example, by her comments about the first line of "Polaroids": "Please no more therapy . . ."

It's not just her music, of course; Colvin was part of what might be considered a folk renaissance in the late 1980s bleeding into the 1990s. Her experience writing with Jon Levanthal, touring with Buddy Miller, even just hanging out with Joni Mitchell offer insight into where artists find inspiration and how such inspiration is translated into something that can be received and embraced by an audience.

It should by now be obvious that I struggle in vain to have objectivity about Shawn Colvin. More objective readers might write a more robust critique of her book. More power to them; me, I'll remember it fondly as a story that touches ever so faintly my own story. "If you could show me the story of love," she sings in "Climb On (a Back That's Strong)," "I would write it again and again." If she did, I would surely read it at least once.

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Friday, September 07, 2012

People Are Corporations!

I've written before (here and here, most notably) on my concerns with corporate personhood. But lately I've been reflecting on another troubling trend: personhood incorporated.

I don't suppose this is a new trend; celebrities, for example, have always had entourages--teams who attended to them and accompanied them everywhere. I think I started to realize that individual celebrities actually represented whole universes of employment and output when (a) I saw Bono from U2 congratulate a stageworker on his retirement during a show in Pittsburgh and (b) I heard some country singer talk about pop singer Adele's 2011 throat surgery and the economic impact on everybody who works for her thanks to canceled shows and delayed recordings. That actually helped me understand the phenomenon of celebrity better: it takes a village, it seems, to keep a fickle public interested in an actor or musician in between releases, and that sustained interest is a driver of success for future products. It's simple free-market economics.

Then, of course, you have celebrities who are famous for nothing. The Kardashians are the most notable examples; they have any number of television series that consist of little more than home movies, with conspiracy theories suggesting that any drama that enters into these meandering documentaries is manufactured to keep the viewers interested. Even marriages and divorces, so the scuttlebutt goes, are contrivances cooked up to make us care about the Kardashians and get us to visit their stores and buy their fragrances or whatever.

The Kardashians aren't exactly what I'm troubled by, though. They were absurdly wealthy before they got absurdly famous, and I think they simply (and very shrewdly) gamed the system that their celebrity friends are forced to play in order to expand an already profitable enterprise. I'm actually more troubled by the likes of "Honey Boo Boo Child," a young girl whose family has organized itself around her as their best shot at fame and fortune: first in the child beauty pageant community and now in the field of reality television.

Honey Boo Boo Child is six. Her mom, I'm told (I don't watch the show), is the real center of the universe on the eponymous reality show, but Honey Boo Boo is the draw--sort of like, back in the day, when Madonna would star in a Guy Ritchie movie because he was her husband and, if she didn't, no one would go see it. Madonna wasn't just a person, she was a brand asset that could be exploited to good effect. Honey Boo Boo, at age six, is exactly that.

Because these corporations are also people, there's a built-in symbiosis. Madonna benefits from the exploitation of Madonna by Madonna, Inc. Honey Boo Boo does likewise (assuming that the benefits that accrue to a child reality star are actually benefits in the long term). But symbiosis is not always a virtue. When resources go scarce, one side's needs dominate the other's. Whatever ecological harmony is achieved in any corporation, much less one that is built around a human being with a personality and personal needs, is vulnerable and easily toxified.

The mind goes quickly to reality television when discussing people as corporations because there are so dang many of them. But I'm starting to realize that this phenomenon is offline as well. The children brought up in the age of helicopter parenting--parents orbiting their children and addressing each need immediately as it surfaces--are now adults, and in many cases the parent-child dynamic has entered adulthood with them. I've heard of parents helping their adult children with their professional growth, their day-to-day work, their housework, their graduate studies. The success of the whole family in these instances, it seems, is dependent on the success of the child because success has been defined around the child. It may take a village to raise a child, but it seems increasingly to take a child to justify a village.

I'm not one to talk about "kids today" and all that. I think it's far too easy for people my age to critique people in their early twenties. I actually think the adult-onset helicopter parenting dynamic is more pressure-inducing on the grown child than actually helpful. With so many people's self-worth and sense of achievement weighing on their shoulders, I envision early-onset gray hair, ulcers and other stress-born struggles. I write this as a non-parent, incidentally; who knows what kind of pressure I might have put on a child by virtue of trying to protect her from all hardship and set her up for nothing but success. The logic of helicopter parenting is obvious to me: kids are your responsibility, and besides that you love them and want the best for them, and so you invest whatever you can in them. Turns out, we learn twenty years later, we can invest more of ourselves in other people than is helpful for them or healthy for us. It's good to acknowledge that no one achieves success on their own. God knows that whatever success I've achieved in life has a great deal to do with sacrifices my parents and other loved ones (and even casual acquaintances and total strangers, if I'm being honest) made on my behalf. The problem is that we've let success be defined by standards that are specific to very specific fields: what constitutes success has been dictated by moguls and heiresses, which places unrealistic expectations on parents and children alike. I can't be a mogul without stepping all over any number of people and neglecting the needs of countless others; if I want my children to be moguls, I'm going to have to let them step all over me.

I once heard Andy Crouch suggest that all idolatry ends in child sacrifice; that's true of cultic religions, he says, but it's also true of the idolatrous inclinations of civilized society. By setting mogul-sized goals for our children, by organizing our families around the success of children, we lay them on altars of our own constructions, and we raise the knife. Only God can save us now.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Good Point, Lesslie Newbigin

For me, 2012 has been, ostensibly, the Year of Overdue Books. I've been reading books that I probably should have read long before this point in my life. I've had little forays into less timeless or more timely books, but on the main I've been playing catch-up all year. Right now that's meant reading something, anything, by Lesslie Newbigin.

Newbigin was a four-decade Christian missionary from England to India, who came back to Britain and found the West a very different place from how it was when he left. The church had lost its lofty position in the culture; its authority had been segregated from the public realm of "facts" to the private realm of "values," and it was struggling to find its footing on this terra nova. In Foolishness to the Greeks, Newbigin suggests that this was at least in part because the church had taken its lofty position for granted.

The true posture of any authentic Christian movement, Newbigin suggests, is that of a missionary--someone who purposefully enters into redemptive conversation with a host culture. Like Daniel and the Babylonians in the Old Testament, or like Paul and the Athenians in the New, the missionary gets to know the host culture and then asks penetrating questions of it, which ultimately lay the groundwork for the good news that the God of the Universe loves the host culture so much that he lays down his life for it. (Do keep in mind at this point that I'm halfway through the shortest Lesslie Newbigin book I could find on a friend's bookshelf, so my characterization of his philosophy of the church is not especially nuanced.) The work of the church is fundamentally set against the way of the world--not in a combative way but as a means of juxtaposition, showcasing the finitude and correspondingly limited wisdom of the host culture, and the ultimate wisdom and commitment of the ultimate Other, God. The missionary is never quite at home, her mission only accomplished insofar as the host culture, and the individual persons in it, turn progressively toward the God who loves them.

This story demands a happy ending. Missionary meets host culture; missionary loves host culture; missionary introduces host culture to God; God loves host culture; host culture loves God; they live happily every after. Ultimately that's the plan, I suppose, if you read the last couple of chapters of the book of Revelation. But in a universe as yet ordered by time and space, there are no grand finales, only chapter endings and plot twists. The host culture that embraces the missionary God exchanges one set of problems (alienation from the God of the universe) for another (a sloppy love relationship, made complicated by the finitude and correspondingly limited wisdom of God's new loved ones). It turns out that Jesus was right: even in a receptive host culture, for the time being at least, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.

So, the work of the church is a tricky business. I've been, of late, swayed considerably by the Anabaptist impulse, of which I've read precious little (again, please excuse my lack of nuance) but which suggests among other things that the church was greatly compromised in its mission by the conversion of Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity and his subsequent legislative and military support of the authority of the church. A church in the center, arguably, has lost sight of the path of Christian discipleship and mission, and becomes more self-protective (in the way of empire) than self-emptying (in the way of Christ). An imperial church doesn't ask questions of host cultures; it makes demands of them. It imposes meaning on them and allows no dissent. It fails the missionary task, and so the work of God must happen elsewhere.

Sounds pretty accurate to me. But then Lesslie Newbigin drops this whammy on me:
The church, in the power of the crucified and risen Jesus, bears witness to the truth and pays the price with its blood. But what was the church to do when the imperial powe lost its will to continue and the emperor turned to the church to provide the spiritual cohesion for a disintegrating society? Much has been written about the harm done to the cause of the gospel when Constantine accepted baptism, and it is not difficult to expatiate on this theme. But could any other choice have been made? When the ancient classical world, which had seemed so brilliant and so all-conquering, ran out of spiritual fuel and turned to the church as the one society that could hold a disintegrating world together, should the church have refused the appeal and washed its hands of responsibility for the political order? It could not do so if it was to be faithful to its origins in Israel and in the ministry of Jesus.
Well, when you put it that way, Lesslie Newbigin, you have a point. But a few questions remain: assuming (as we must assume) that the society that emerged under the authority of the church was fundamentally flawed, what would it look like done right? And how is the mission of the church sustained when the church is forced off the margins and into the center? And how does the missionary church guard itself against the political and material enticements of empire while serving an imperially inclined society with moral and ethical leadership? And what does expatiate mean?

I'm not at the end of the book; I'm not even at the end of a chapter. But these are questions that merit reflection without end until the last tear has been shed and all earthly empires have been supplanted. So I guess we all have some serious thinking to do.