Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Ironic Christian's Companion

The Ironic Christian's Companion: Finding the Marks of God's Grace in the World
Patrick Henry (Riverhead Books, 1999)

"This book is about the grace of God, but not about magic, and certainly not about anything easy. It's about something simple, that God can be trusted but not taken for granted..."

Patrick Henry is a middle-aged straight white Christian religious scholar, the son and grandson of clergymen, but we ought not to hold any of that against him--he's still able to grasp the uncertainties and ironies of our walk in the world in a helpful way. He is not an elegant writer like Kathleen Norris, nor a scintillating story-teller like Annie Lamott, but he might well find a place near them on your devotional shelf.
In particular, Henry has overcome his background and training as a scholar: he has (by noticing that he needed to) recaptured the ability to experience the Bible as story, rather than as the object of hermeneutical autopsy. The Ironic Christian's Companion is full of stories, from God's challenging Moses with the faith of his father, to the early oeuvre of Dr. Seuss. Few of them are original or unique to Henry, but it matters not: this book is meant as a companion for the journey, and a commentary on some things we already knew but haven't noticed lately.
The other handicap that Henry has overcome is the temptation of certainty. "I have had to learn to listen to the God whose ways are not my ways, whose thoughts are not my thoughts", he says; (and later) "...but resistance to certainty has proved for me a solid ground of hope." Think how many of the things scholars have been certain of, that the scholars of other ages have found to be dead wrong. This is not a reason to believe nothing--there is plenty of fertile ground between a gullible (and perhaps impossible) certainty in pre-packaged truths, and the modern dogma of what-you-see-is-all-you-get.
That ground between is room for intelligent questioning, and for the kind of answers that widen the scope of the questions so that what seemed like opposing answers are dissolved in larger perspectives. Was Jesus human or divine? The answer is not one or the other; to say that He was both, utterly, enlarges the question to something like its proper magnitude as one of the central koans of Christianity.
I particularly appreciate Henry's notes on the life of the mind. If God loves the childlike, does He shun the thoughtful? Another koan. "I have at times experienced my mind as alien, as the nub of the contradiction between what I know and what I feel." But as Saint Augustine tells us, "we can truly know only what we love." It's not that knowledge is not valuable; especially by sharing it in community, we can often enlighten and encourage one another. It's just that any one seeker's knowledge is incomplete, and liable to error; and without love, it helps us not at all.
When we embody what we know in what we love, then our faith will give rise to acts of trust; love will give rise to generosity and gratitude; hope will give rise to prayer. All these things happen especially in communities of friendship, where we celebrate and share our various strengths and weaknesses, offering one another courage and a loving vision of hope.

June 2005

Friday, December 18, 2009

Slush Pile

I read quite a bit last month, but nothing that rose to the level of what I would normally commend to you. Here are some thumbnail sketches of the unsuccessful candidates.
This was fun to do, and somewhat enlightening; I think I'll make it a regular thing.

Life with Sudden Death: A tale of moral hazard and medical misadventure
Michael Downing (Counterpoint, 2009)
The two different books stuffed between these covers don’t cross-illuminate as much as one might hope, though the common chapter titles are a nice touch. The first half is a memoir of a Catholic boyhood, with bells on: Downing is the youngest of nine, and he was only three when father keeled over, dead of heart disease. His mother was a saint, of the usual difficult sort, and the memoir is a series of misadventures, amusingly told but disheartening.
In the second part, the family’s potential disposition to heart disease comes under the eye of the cardiac-industrial complex in Boston's Longwood Medical area. A genetic test leads to a defibrillator implant, which leads to a serious infection, followed by concerns about the wires that lead to the heart. Would Downing have been better off not taking the test in the first place? Maybe so: he quotes one surgeon as saying, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.” Ouch.

I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing
Kyria Abrahams (Touchstone, 2009)
Same song, different verse. Abrahams had a father in residence, but her mother is cut from the same religion-addled, child-abusing cloth as Downing’s. Abrahams married young to get some distance from her unhappy home life, only to come up with several other ways to be unhappy. Having been taught that attending a birthday party is as big a sin as adultery, Abrahams is not equipped for life in the World, with predictably dismal results, at least as far as the memoir runs. While I have sometimes wondered what life was like inside this particular sect and community, in the end, I didn’t really want to know.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames
David Sedaris (Back Bay Books, 2009)
This book of witty essays is rejected as review material because it fails the suitable-for-all-audiences standard, (though no doubt most of you are less touchy than I imagine.) These essays extend familiar Sedaris territory--his vices, his life in France, his dysfunctional family of origin, (which, to my relief, he makes genuinely funny.) You know if you like David Sedaris--enjoy.

Mother of God, a novel
Michael Downing (Simon and Schuster, 1990)
Downing’s second novel, Mother of God, was too hard for me, or I just didn’t like the characters. If you’re interested in his fiction, start with Breakfast with Scot, which is charming and funny.

December's email edition, 2009

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

gods in Alabama

gods in Alabama
a novel by Joshilyn Jackson
(2005, Warner Books)

I can do no better, by way of introducing gods in Alabama, than to quote from the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: "1. Quarterbacks (Football)--Crimes against--Fiction. 2. Interracial dating--Fiction. 3. Women murderers--Fiction. 4. Chicago (Ill.)--Fiction. 5. Young women--Fiction. 6. Alabama--Fiction."

Irresistable, no? There's more. A more complete cataloging would have added a caption covering our narrator Arlene's crazy mother, and her terribly sweet cousin Clarice, and the most formidable aunt since P. G. Wodehouse handed in his dinner pail; and the mating habits of the small-town Southern teenager, a couple of decades back.

Also missing: the heading for "Culture Shock--Fiction", which Jackson introduces like this: "I didn't know a soul, having picked Chicago because it was the farthest place from Possett that had offered me a full scholarship. I really don't recommend moving from rural Alabama to a major Yankee city in one great bounding leap. It's like picking up a prairie dog and dropping him into the Pacific." The cure for homesickness, as it turns out, is an all-black Baptist (American, not Southern, but you can't have everything) church: "Every person I met and spoke with was soon relaxed and chatting with me about the weather or their children or Jesus." Arlene falls hard for the son of her first friend in the church, but she has justifiable qualms about taking him back to meet the home-folks.

There's an art to making those folks sound eccentric but not bizarre, and Jackson has hit it nicely. That art lies mainly in remembering that, to themselves, they sound downright normal--including the next-door lady with the pet chicken named Phoebe-- and letting the clashes fall where they may. It also helps to get the language right; and the food, the colors, and the smells; and Jackson does that, too.

Oh, and those women murderers, and the quarterbacks? Arlene confesses to knocking off a quarterback in the opening sentence; the tale of why, and what happened to the body, emerges over the course of the book. It's not so much a conventional mystery as a tangled tale; it took a couple of twists I didn't expect, while remaining true to the people involved.

October 2005

Walking a Literary Labyrinth

Walking a Literary Labyrinth: A Spirituality of Reading
Nancy M. Malone (2003, Riverhead Books)

     Walking a labyrinth is commended as a meditative discipline because it involves a period of quiet concentration, together with enough activity to guide the concentration in meaningful ways; something about covering a longish distance in a smallish space (including changes of direction and apparent setbacks) seems to resonate with spiritual work.    
     In Walking a Literary Labyrinth, Nancy Malone says that it is much the same with reading. Whether or not we are reading explicitly religious books, we travel over ground that others have laid down for us in such a way that we spend spiritual time with ourselves, and deepen our interior conversation. By way of example, Malone cites certain favorite biographies: "each answers in its unique way the questions I am always asking when I am reading: What is it all about? I mean life, its meaning and purpose. And what do other people make of it, not only in their thinking but in their doing? What do they make of themselves, in both senses of the phrase?...Whether they are referred to God or not, these questions and the answers we give them are, finally, ultimate for each of us; they frame and guide the one life each of us has to live."
     This book itself has a labyrinthine quality: Malone gently wanders and meditates, within a discernable compass. An Ursuline nun for some fifty years, she weaves a memoir of her childhood and education, her religious and spiritual life, and her life in reading. I was interested to compare Malone's path with Karen Armstrong's, whose The Spiral Staircase also traces a life path whose outlines have only emerged with the passage of time. Armstrong left the convent as a young woman, with many of her educational and personal struggles yet ahead of her. Malone went to college before becoming a nun, which perhaps made her more resilient through great changes both in herself and in the institution--though her ignorance about the life she was entering was nearly as great as Armstrong's would be, some years later.
     Malone is a wonderful companion, especially for book talk. She recommends classics of theological and spiritual writing, but also biography, poetry, and fiction. She finds certain writers of the current age too dry and minimalist: "... I believe that language, in all its dimensions, articulates the human spirit. Language is grammatically complex because we are, our thoughts and feelings and relationships are, because life is. We don't experience ourselves, or life, simply, declaratively. We need subordinate clauses, compound-complex sentences to express the reality of who we are, to show what is more important or less important, just how one thought or feeling or situation is related to another." Her passion for clear language makes her writing a pleasure to read.
     My thanks are due to Jim Olesen, whose sense that I would treasure this book proved altogether correct. I found much to reflect on, and, in many places, felt terribly well understood: "You do what you were made to do. Some of us were made to read and write. Thanks be to God."

September 2005