Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An Altar in the World

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
Barbara Brown Taylor (2009, HarperOne)

For those of us with some ambivalence about religious matters, Barbara Brown Taylor brings a welcome message, framed as a paradox: If we go to church to be nearer to God, does that mean we get farther from God when we leave? Surely not, but then, what was the point of going? Taylor is an Episcopal priest, now working mainly as a teacher and writer*. In An Altar in the World, she does not deny or refute all the good that church can do, and be; but she argues against the tendency to look for God only there. Where, in the world, is the holy to be found?
Happily, another paradox answers the first. The stories of our holy traditions point the way: “God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes and complete strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for their pay.”
In other words, if we imagine we’d like to be more spiritual, maybe we need to start by being more embodied. Maybe it’s not so much about what we believe as what we do, after all; or at least, the two are not so separable as we’ve been led to believe. “The daily practice of incarnation--of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh--is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels. Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper?”
This is heartening, and, naturally, frightening as well. We don’t have to wait for Sunday to wash our neighbors’ feet, in whatever way presents itself, and share our supper with them. “Reverence for creation comes fairly easily for most people. Reverence for other people presents more of a challenge, especially if those people’s lives happen to impinge upon your own.” Seeking the holy presence in all the others in the market or on the bus sounds like an inexhaustible practice.
Another simplest-and-most-difficult practice Taylor recommends is keeping the Sabbath. Can we really slow down enough to let the Holy catch up with us? These days, it’s a challenge. It’s also, she points out, a commandment. If the thought of a whole day of rest makes you intolerably nervous, she suggests, start however you can. “You could resolve not to add anything more to your calendar without subtracting something from it. You could practice praising yourself for saying no as lavishly as you do when you say yes.”
Brown writes unapologetically from a Christian perspective, but she’s entirely sensitive to the inadequacy of language, which is so often a way of distancing ourselves from the material realities she commends to our attention. What language does a snowflake speak, or a sunrise? And she knows plenty of people who are reverent without being particularly religious: “They do not want to debate anyone. The longer they stand before the holy of holies, the less adequate their formulations of faith seem to them. Angels reach down and shut their mouths.”
Reverence, rest, work, prayer; all good things, but they come with no guarantees, no promises. If we know anything, we know that we are not in charge. We don’t control when and where God knocks, but maybe we could get a little better at opening the door when it happens.
Hallelujah, and amen.

October 2009

*See also

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Death of Adam

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought
Marilynne Robinson (1998, Houghton Mifflin)

"History has a history, which is not more reassuring nor less consequential than the figures and events it records or constructs or reconstructs, or erases. Calvin, whoever he was and is, walked in the fires of controversy and polemic for centuries, flames of a kind that generally immortalize rather than consume. Yet Calvin somehow vanished."
Marilynne Robinson wants Calvin back--the substance of him, what he wrote and thought and believed, as opposed to what has been said about him by people who may never have read him at all. In what opinions did he follow Chrysostom, and in what, Augustine? (And what, in turn, did they say, exactly?) She points out, with justice, that reading all of what Calvin read would take a vast amount of time, to say nothing of reading all of what he wrote; but reading him in the original would tend to correct our impression that Calvinism meant primarily oppression and repression; Geneva was also the home of radical forms of democracy, and of scholarship and inquiry that spread to the enlightenment of the world.

She is not under the impression that historians ever arrive at an ultimate truth: "The idea that all history is parochial should be understood to mean only that all history is defective. It must not be taken to justify the very kind of error that makes the enterprise so often futile or dangerous, and surely not to suggest that the problem can be solved or avoided, rigorous as the attempt to do so must be." No, we must keep our critical apparatus as sharp for the errors of the present as for those of the past.

These essays touch on other seldom-touched touchstones of our past; their wisdom and lucidity is daunting. Robinson is serious on serious subjects, but we feel her compulsion to wrestle with them, and her joy in doing so. She is working to reclaim sacredness as a human inheritance, and with it, she hopes, democracy, learning, and civilization itself. No small hope, but dare we hope for less?

Brief Heroes and Histories

Brief Heroes and Histories

Barbara Holland (1998, The Akadine Press)

Hurrah! for Barbara Holland, who has undertaken the program that Marilynne Robinson commended in The Death of Aadm, of looking at the actual history of things we've grown used to thinking we know all about. Notwithstanding the understanding to be gained by the study of military, political, and economic history, I'm always hungry for the old-fashioned narrative sort. That is, story-telling: why did our hero do such a thing, and what happened next? (Or the villain, or course, but remember--nobody is the villain of his own story.)
And what heroes these are, when their stories emerge. Before William Penn was master of Pennsylvania, he was a thorn in his father's side: "Early Quakers were less concerned with modesty and humility than with defiance, and Penn could defy with the best of them." Or: "If the Transcendalist philosopher Bronson Alcott had taken the slightest interest in earning a living, we would never have had Little Women." And: "Heroicly speaking, the Marquis de Lafayette was a bright spot - and even he spent more time begging for boots than he spent in battle."
Hardly less interesting are the metastories of what has happened to the stories through the ages. "The real Pocahontas story is more interesting, but we can't tell the children because it shows our earliest settlers in a dim light. Heroic princesses are strictly optional; heroic settlers are basic education." Robin Hood's story has probably been improved by moving his dates to the era of Richard the Lion-Hearted, and casting him as Errol Flynn.
Not just human heroes and heroines, but institutions come in for Holland's story-telling mastery: the Algonquin Round Table, the jury system, the British Raj have their origins and their human quirks. Holland writes with economy and elan; her ready curiosity is a sure guide to the interesting bits of history. Enjoy--

March 2006

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Wee Free Men

The Wee Free Men
A Hat Full of Sky
Terry Pratchett (2003, 2004; Harper Collins)

I'm a big fan of Terry Pratchett's work for adults, though I'm sure he doesn't make too much of the distinction, since his Discworld series is perfectly accessible to teenagers. The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky also take place on Discworld; they are marketed as children's books because their heroine starts out as a nine-year-old girl. Tiffany Aching lives in the high chalk country, analogous to the downs of southern England. It's a good place for sheep, if not much else, and she's a dab hand with the cheesemaking. She has also decided to grow up to be a witch.
The possibility of magic is one of the main differences between Discworld and ours (the other being, of course, that our world does not rest on the backs of four elephants, which are standing on the back of a giant turtle.) What Tiffany has to learn, to become a witch, is not so much how to do magic, but when to refrain from doing it. As Tiffany's first teacher, Miss Tick (Pratchett likes his puns, the lower the better) says, "Witches don't use magic unless they really have to. It's hard work and difficult to control. We do other things. A witch pays attention to everything that's going on. A witch uses her head."
Tiffany is more than half a witch already, it seems. That's why she's the favorite human of the Nac Mac Feegle, a gang of six-inch-high blue men, very strong, with red hair and pugnacious dispositions. They are not quite evil, but definitely lawless; very fast and very strong, they'll steal anything on the farm, from a needle to a ewe, though they're especially partial to strong drink.
Pratchett has a great gift for plucking the strings of stories we already know, and making new music with them. Tiffany herself has a questioning turn of mind toward the old stories. "...the book never gave you the evidence of anything. It talked about 'a handsome prince'...was he really, or was it just because he was a prince that people called him handsome? As for 'a girl who was as beautiful as the day was long'...well, which day? In midwinter it hardly ever got light!" When she meets a monster she's heard described as having eyes as big as soup plates, she goes and measures a soup plate (eight inches). My kind of girl.
These are tales of derring-do and danger, cunning and courage. If you know any eleven-year-old girls like Tiffany, you should pass these books along. If you were one, you'll want to read them yourself.

April 2006