Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Maytrees: Annie Dillard

The Maytrees

By Annie Dillard

HarperCollins, 2007

“She knew Christianity stressed the Ten Commandments, Jesus Christ as the only son of God who walked on water and rose up after dying on the cross, the Good Samaritan, and cleanliness is next to godliness.” (from The Maytrees, p 86)

This is an older book. Nearly four years old now. It is not about Christianity; maybe not.

It is about what holds us together and how we fall apart. “I am not going to fall apart, she had told herself…She fell apart.”

It is about love: what makes it, what it is, how it is and why we keep returning to love as the basis of a life well formed and lived. “Why then do old people fall in love? Why stay loving? The feeling of love is so crucial to our species it is excessive, like labor pain. Lasting love is an act of will. It is a gentleman’s game.”

It is about forgiveness. “And forgiveness had nothing to do with it.”

It is about oneness and depth that is a pair of humans who know each other and do not. “Half his life he had sounded her and never struck bottom.”

The book is about The Maytrees; Toby and Lou, their life together and apart. It’s about their hurt and their hope. “We speak, we listen, we wonder, we move…under the sky.”

“She found herself holding one end of a love. She reeled out love’s long line alone; it did not catch.”

Love is a strange thing. It covers a multitude of sins. It is preeminent among our lists of things we Christian folk ought to do. For God so loved. And, worse, Love one another; deeply. I can’t keep up with that command. I cannot even keep up with the thought of reading it.

It is more than a feeling. It is more than an emotion. It is more than what appears on the surface as a happy face or a warm handshake. Love, true love, is something far more complex than we understand hence those soundings that never quite strike bottom or those kites we fly that never quite reach the sky.

The book is about the way a man loves and the way a woman loves and the way they love each other. It is about what survives when everything else is crashing, falling apart, changing, or coming to an end. Death does not stop love. Infidelity does not stop love. Growing old does not stop love. Broken limbs and hearts do not stop love. Love is presence. Love is an awakening. Love is ours for the asking or the giving. Love is a letter that comes in the mail from an old friend, someone we have tried to forget and haven’t, and so we read it and end up back at square one and start our forgetting and moving on all over again. It’s an edge from which we might slip.

Love is like that, does funny things to our hands and hearts and heads. Love is a glass of gin after many years of estrangement; or a hug.

The best part of the book is found on pages 158-161. All I want to say about these pages is that they make sense for what they say and what they don’t say. What makes our feet move? What makes us go on journeys perilous and terrifying with no way to measure our steps in the dark or balance ourselves against wind, sand, and tree branches hang low in our path and we strike our heads against them. Why do it? Why press on? Why continue moving in the direction of love when our feet are bloodied and our head aches? Why not turn back when we know we should? Why does it matter?

“There far on the right was her light.”

The best four pages in the book are the pages that show the reader that love is and always was but that we have to go through a damn awful lot to realize it. The best four pages in the book describe the journey of a broken man in search of a light in the dark, the one place he hopes to find grace.

And isn’t that the story of us all?

Is it enough if we only realize that love at the end, at death’s door? Whose face will be the face of love? Can we be forgiven for being so obtuse and discovering this too late to undo all that hurt and suffering we have created for ourselves along the way, in our estrangement?

The book is asking: Just how weak is love? Does it have a breaking point?

I recommend this book to you for all of its Annie Dillard beauty and triumph and grit and reality. You will struggle on some sentences and you will need a dictionary close by at times, but it is, as a professor used to say to me of Shakespeare, worth the struggle.

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In the Land of Believers: Gina Welch

In the Land of Believers

by Gina Welch

Metropolitan Books

[This is a preliminary preview and initial impressions of this book. When I have finished it, I will provide a more comprehensive review.–JLH]

A few weeks back, I was contacted by someone in the marketing department at Metropolitan Books and asked to review Gina Welch’s new, and first, book In the Land of Believers. I had previously written about Kevin Roose’s book The Unlikely Disciple here and here and so it seemed, to him, that I would be at least one good candidate to write a review. I accepted.

Or it could be that the marketer noticed that I am some form of a conservative Christian and that to get another slant, so to speak, on Welch’s book might be fun. Who knows the motivation, I was happy to be asked to write and get a free book along the way.

Here in this post I want to offer a couple of preliminary thoughts on the book as a way to tease you into my more detailed review that will come later. It should be noted that I am late to the game, again, and that the book is scheduled for publication in March 2010. Nevertheless, I was asked to read and review and that’s what I’m going to do.

First, you can get more information about Gina Welch here at her website. That’s a picture I borrowed from her website (I hope she doesn’t mind). She also blogs at True/Slant and slices and dices her way through the news with a typical liberal slant. Welch has a funny bone, sure, and I’d like to think that her funny bone will be enough to beat me into submission before I have to start wading through the thick and tired liberal rhetoric that defines most books of this nature. In that regard, her book is a sort of female version of Roose’s book: Skeptical, mocking, and inflammatory. I’m hoping (with closed eyes, crossed fingers, and held breath) that by the end of the book there is some sort of epiphany, some moral to the story, some bright as an August day realization that Christians are not the caricatures she paints–but I’m not really sure that many Christians who read this book will feel as if one page of epiphany appended at the end will justify the three-hundred and twenty nine pages of angst that went before. But I could be wrong (closed eyes, crossed fingers, held breath….)

She does say, in the introduction, and somewhat cryptically, “A long time passed before I understood that there was something serious behind the gloss, that there was meaning behind the music and minds behind the slogans” (5). I can’t hardly wait to see what she thinks it is.

Second, the book describes Ms Welch’s foray into the, surprise, surprise, Thomas Road Baptist Church which was founded and organized by the late Jerry Falwell. This also marks the book as different from Roose’s: he infiltrated, through lies and subterfuge, Liberty University. Welch did him one better by infiltrating, through lies and subterfuge, the church. That’s all fine. Frankly, I can think of no better place for sinners and saints to be than the church–the Body of Christ. And I don’t particularly care if they get there by hook or crook or publisher or subterfuge: just get there.

The subtitle of the book is: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church. A couple of thoughts here. First, the Thomas Road Baptist Church is not the heart of the Evangelical Church. It is one congregation among many in this world. So it is a misnomer and a mis-characterization to use the article ‘the’ in any sense as if Thomas Road Baptist Church has a monopoly on Jesus. I won’t dwell on it though because sensationalism sells books and my suspicion is that this is part of the marketing. Second, why is this the only church people infiltrate and write about, Jerry Falwell’s church? I have a theory about this that I think would stand up under scrutiny: I think it is about politics, pure and simple.

Seriously. When the author of a book, any book on any subject, writes in the introduction to the book that she has a ’soft spot for Dennis Kucinich’ and then a paragraph later writes, ‘Virginia wouldn’t go for Barack Obama until six years after I’d moved there…’ and then, on the same page, blames ‘Evangelicals’ for ’securing George W. Bush’s second term in office’ it seems fairly obvious why the author of this sort of book would go to Thomas Road Baptist Church where no less than Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and bane to Tinki Winki, is the pastor. Real subtle; not too confusing: it’s politics.

By the end of the chapter she has made reference to John McCain and Mike Huckabee and another reference to President Bush. I think this is the reason for choosing Thomas Road as opposed to, say, Christ Redeemer Presbyterian in New York: Tim Keller presents no political controversy. Fact is, Ms Welch could have very easily found a liberal congregation to ‘infiltrate’ and spy on for year. She didn’t have to go to Jerry Falwell’s congregation. There are congregations in my own community who believe the way she believes about most social issues. No, I suspect the real motivation has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus and his message and everything to do with politics and ‘those Christians’ who keep on inserting themselves into elections and winning them for marginal Christians.

I heard on the radio yesterday someone ask that very question. I listen to Limbaugh for about 2 minutes per day, after my part time job, on the way home, before the 1:45 commercial break. It was this very question a caller posed him yesterday: What are we going to do about the Christians in the Conservative, Republican party? The gentleman caller believes Christians are ruining politics for Conservatives just as Ms Welch believes Christians are ruining them, and America, for Liberals. It’s terribly unfortunate that both the anonymous caller and Ms Welch seem to think that the Christian has no right to an opinion–at least an opinion that should count in national elections.

Well good news Ms Welch and anonymous caller to Rush: some of us don’t give a damn about your politics or your president–conservative or liberal. Last election I voted for neither Obama nor McCain but instead some obscure Constitution party candidate who had not a snowballs chance in July of winning the election. That said, I do agree with part of the premise which governs their particular fear: if my theory is correct and Welch chose Thomas Road because it is a hotbed of political rhetoric where the pastor had ‘a standing weekly phone call with President Bush’ (6) then it is not atheistic conservatives and liberals who ought to be afraid, but Christians.

As Eugene Peterson writes:

“That throne [Christ’s throne] relativizes and marginalizes all earthly thrones and all the world’s politics” (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 43)

I will have more to say later when I have read a bit further into the book. I hope to be finished before the end of March and I should make good progress when spring break gets here. So come back for more on this book.

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Paul Zelinsky: Rapunzel

Rapunzel

By Paul O Zelinsky

1997 Caldecott Medal winner

“About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale. Perhaps I had better say a few words in its defence, as reading for children” (CS Lewis)

I am currently a graduate student at Cleveland State University. One of my classes this semester is Literature Based Reading Methods for Children (EDL 312/512). It is the best class I have had so far because it is about nothing but books. I cannot honestly say we have learned anything about methods, but we have learned a lot about books, primarily children’s books.

Every week we are required to read and annotate 20 books. These are mostly picture books so it’s not much of a chore, and it has, indeed, opened my eyes to the a wonderful world of books I knew existed but had long since forgotten to read. My children are nearly all teenagers now so of what use are children’s picture books to us? Oh, what a horrible mistake! These books are wonderful and how blessed are we to have them among us, us old people.

These books, I have discovered, remind us of simpler times and times when we were young. I love the line by Rich Mullins in his song “I’ll Carry On”:

But I’ll carry the songs

I learned when we were kids
I’ll carry the scars of generations gone by
I’ll pray for you always, and I promise you this
I’ll carry on ~ I’ll carry on.

That’s what these books are: The songs we learned as kids and sort of through neglect or through indifference or simply through intentionality forgot about. I am glad for this class I am taking because it is reminding me of all the stories I forgot and introducing me to new stories I had never heard.

These stories bind us together as a people. Not just or merely or even as Christians, but as humans—a people scattered across this land. I confess that a large part of my problem is that I get too caught up in the technological wonders of motion pictures and computer generated graphics of video games. The sensational is spectacular, but what about that which we can, and have to,  penetrate with our eyes, feel in our hands, and create in our own minds? What about the hours an author or an artist puts into creating a scene that we can smell? What about retraining children (and adults!)  to use their imagination instead of allowing others to do it for them?

How does one create the sense of loneliness on a painted page in a book? The same way Samuel Taylor Coleridge created stillness in his poem The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner: “As idle as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean.” Paul Zelinsky creates loneliness by painting the tiniest picture of Rapunzel in the middle of a vast, open landscape featuring mountains and fully grown trees and a vast sky and towering cliffs. Poor Rapunzel is tiny; the world is huge, and she is alone in it while buzzards circle overhead.

The story of Rapunzel is known to most people so I need not rehearse it for you here. What is truly remarkable about this book is the Renaissance style artwork that Zelinsky painted to accompany the story. It is the artwork that makes this story new and fresh. It’s the way he paints love, anguish, fear, joy, grace, anger, sorrow, grief, selfishness, and happiness that makes this book worth taking the time to read. It is the way he mimics Raphael’s Madonna at the end of the book that makes one think: I am reading something more here than a fairy tale about Rapunzel. And, to be sure, someone else recognized his brilliant work by awarding his version of Rapunzel with the Caldecott Medal in 1997.

It seems to me that perhaps children’s books authors know a little something more than we have previously thought and that by keeping alive these stories in the minds of children they are keeping alive a spark of humanity that the Holy Spirit can still access. Perhaps it is these sorts of stories that keep us malleable and open to a work that Christ will do later. Perhaps.

These songs we learned as kids…we should remember them and pass them along to kids so that they too will remember them and pass them along. Rapunzel is a great story to read to children and Zelinsky’s version is a wonderful piece of art to hold in the hands and look at and smell and hear and feel. Most certainly you should read this book today.

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Jonathan Rogers: The Bark of the Bog Owl

The Bark of the Bog Owl

The Bark of the Bog Owl

The Bark of the Bog Owl
Jonathan Rogers
(book 1 of The Wilderking Trilogy)

It has been said, regarding many different facets of life, that it is the journey that counts, not the destination. This book is certainly one of those times.

In The Bark of the Bog Owl , Jonathan Rogers borrows from the Biblical story of David in 1 Samuel, setting the story in an adventure/fantasy world. Those familiar with the story of David will know in advance where certain parts of the story are going.

For instance, when the wise and well-respected prophet, Bayard (the book’s analogue of Samuel) shows up at the house of Errol (the book’s Jesse) looking for the Wilderking, we know that he’s going to find him to be the youngest of Errol’s sons, a shepherd boy named Aidan.

And when Corenwald (Israel) goes to battle with Pyrth (Philistia), complete with the giant Pyrthen warrior Greidawl (Goliath) issuing the challenge for one Corenwald warrior to fight him, and blaspheming the name of the One True God, we already know Greidawl’s fate (and by whose hand it will come).

But Rogers doesn’t just ape the Scriptures. Were this a direct re-telling of the story, one would classify it as speculative fiction, as Rogers fills in a lot of details on which the Bible is silent. Also to be noted is the fact that the story arc doesn’t always follow the Biblical narrative either. For instance, after Aidan kills Greidawl, the Pyrthens go back on their word, and the battle isn’t over, as they start employing cannons, a battle “technology” that the men of Corenwald have never seen.

This book appears to be targeted at middle-school age kids, and one can definitely see the influence that Rogers has on Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga series. But like Peterson’s books (or C S Lewis’ Narnia books), this novel is in no way limited to its primary target audience.

If you have kids of this age, and want to use them as an excuse to read this book to them, go ahead. I won’t tell. And even if you don’t, I still won’t tell.

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Eugene Peterson: Practice Resurrection

Reading & Blogging Practice Resurrection by Eugene H Peterson

This is Peterson’s fifth ‘conversation’ in his long series of conversations that began in 2005 and now, five books later, totaling over 1400 pages. It is a masterpiece of theology and one that, after my first reading of Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, thoroughly transformed my practice of faith in Christ. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that after reading that book I had a conversion experience and that I was set off on a pilgrimage from which I could never return to the old way of doing things. I think it also began the undoing of my life as a ‘professional member of the clergy.’

Something Peterson wrote in that first book so deeply resonated within me that it changed everything I had every believed about Christ, salvation, church, and, yes, preaching. I realized I had been looking at things from quite the wrong perspective, that my practice of being a Jesus follower was far too concerned with proving my worth, growing a big church, and making all the right choices all the time. I had created a god in my own image; I knew little of God’s grace.

He wrote, “The central verb, ‘play,’ catches the exuberance and freedom that mark life when it is lived beyond necessity, beyond mere survival. ‘Play’ also suggests words and sounds and actions that are ‘played’ for another, intentional and meaningful renderings of beauty of truth or goodness. Hopkins incorporates this sense of play with God as the ultimate ‘other’ (‘…to the Father’)—which is to say that all life is, or can be, worship.” (3)

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places is Peterson’s masterpiece. It is brilliant. And now he has published the fifth (and sadly) and final volume in his series of ‘conversations in spiritual theology’ Practice Resurrection. This time the title is taken from a poem drawn by Wendell Berry (Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front) where the author, Berry, strongly encourages the pilgrim to be everything and nothing that no one and everyone is and is not expecting: “Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.”

I have to confess that Peterson was the fox: I did not see Practice Resurrection coming. His first four conversations, books, have taught me to worship, read, pray, and preach. Now he is, somewhat backwardly, telling me how to live, how to mature, how to grow up in Christ and be a big boy. And I weep when I listen to his pen as it scratches the paper. He sets me on edge with sentences like, “God is on a salvation march through the country of the dead and the damned, taking captives on the way” (40). When I read that, I nearly fell out of my chair, and I certainly did fall out of myself.  And I get very uncomfortable when he writes things like, “Sometimes we have to change jobs in order to maintain our vocation” (55).

Really?

Then I see this picture drawn for the reader, “That throne [Christ’s throne] relativizes and marginalizes all earthly thrones and all the world’s politics” (43). I am speechless.

It’s very easy to get caught up in oneself. Peterson reminds us, as he has done in everything he has ever written that the “bible is not a book to carry around and read for information on God, but a voice to listen to” (33).  But I think that is a fair assessment of how many Christians read the Bible: not as God’s word to us, but as a primer or a flow chart whereby we construct wonderful systematic theologies. Then, aha!, we can measure who is in and who is not. Those who don’t fit in we can fire, excommunicate, or run out of town; but some of us won’t leave.

But maybe Peterson’s point is that we are not grown up when we know how to worship, pray, preach, and read but that if we practice and listen to God and talk to God we will see that we have a lot of growing up we need to do. His point, as he makes it in this fifth conversation, is that we have a lot of growing up to do, we church, and that all our efforts to grow up using the world’s ways and means are not at all accomplishing what Christ wants to accomplish in us. No. On the contrary, we grow up in the most backward and left-handed way imaginable way possible: By doing almost nothing. He calls it ‘acquired passivity,’ and explains that ‘Americans in general have little tolerance for a centering way of life that is submissive to the conditions in which growth takes place: quiet, obscure, patient, not subject to human control and management’ (6).

I agree. But Peterson goes further and suggests that the place where this happens is in the church.

The church.

Then Peterson begins the long painful journey through the book of Ephesians and explains that it is in the church, the broken, corrupt, scandalous, misguided church that all this happens—all this shaping and forming and maturing and practicing resurrection in Christ. But Peterson, wise pastor that he is, knows well that this is not the way of the American church. I sense in his writing a frustration with this American church—is the church, especially the American version of it, the place where Mad Farmers and foxes can practice resurrection?  I think Peterson wants to believe it is, but I think he is skeptical at many points.

I understand Peterson’s frustration because the American church is far too concerned with things that God is not concerned with at all and, then, ‘the church we want becomes the enemy of the church we have’ (29). He goes further, “Over the course of these fifty years I have seen both the church and my vocation as a pastor in it relentlessly diminished and corrupted by being redefined in terms of running and ecclesiastical business” (23).  It took Peterson 50 years to figure it out; took me 15 years.

Peterson still celebrates the church as the place where we grow and mature. For now, I will struggle with him.

I agree with those who think that ‘everything must change’ even if I hardly advocate the theology that underlies their assertion. The church in America must change. It must become a place where we are free to practice resurrection, play, read, pray, and preach.  Too many codgers still live in the local congregation thought who will make that impossible for a few more minutes.

As someone who has been on the inside of the behind the scenes workings of the church I can say this with confidence: the church will lose what it tries to hold on to, and I will pray it does.

This is Part 1 of my review of Peterson’s book. Thanks for stopping by.

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