I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Next novel---A New Year's Eve event

I will be posting my next novel review of A Thousand Splendid Suns on January 1st at 12:01 am. (This novel, I must say, is both brutal and beautiful. I hope you will have the opportunity to read it.)

Hope to see you here at midnight on the first!

I will probably be toasting the New Year with Tamie's wonderful family here in Winona Lake, Indiana.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ben Bernanke

I thought you all might appreciate reading about Ben Bernanke, Time's Person of the Year.

Here are a few snippets:

The overriding story of 2009 was the economy — the lousiness of it, and the fact that it wasn't far lousier. It was a year of escalating layoffs, bankruptcies and foreclosures, the "new frugality" and the "new normal." It was also a year of green shoots, a rebounding Dow and a fragile sense that the worst is over. Even the big political stories of 2009 — the struggles of the Democrats; the tea-party takeover of the Republicans; the stimulus; the deficit; GM and Chrysler; the backlash over bailouts and bonuses; the furious debates over health care, energy and financial regulation; the constant drumbeat of jobs, jobs, jobs — were, at heart, stories about the economy. And it's Bernanke's economy.....

In 2009, Bernanke hurled unprecedented amounts of money into the banking system in unprecedented ways, while starting to lay the groundwork for the Fed's eventual return to normality. He helped oversee the financial stress tests that finally calmed the markets, while launching a groundbreaking public relations campaign to demystify the Fed. Now that Obama has decided to keep him in his job, he has become a lightning rod in an intense national debate over the Fed as it approaches its second century.
But the main reason Ben Shalom Bernanke is TIME's Person of the Year for 2009 is that he is the most important player guiding the world's most important economy. His creative leadership helped ensure that 2009 was a period of weak recovery rather than catastrophic depression, and he still wields unrivaled power over our money, our jobs, our savings and our national future. The decisions he has made, and those he has yet to make, will shape the path of our prosperity, the direction of our politics and our relationship to the world.

The Depression Buff
Bernanke says his first spark of interest in the Great Depression came as a boy listening to his mother's parents on their porch in Charlotte, N.C., where his grandfather was a kosher butcher. Their family had survived pogroms in Lithuania, but the story that captivated Bernanke involved a town full of shoe factories that closed during the Depression, leaving the community so poor that its children went barefoot. "I kept asking, Why didn't they just open the factories and make the kids shoes?' " he recalls. He would devote his career to questions like that.
Bernanke calls the Depression "the holy grail of macroeconomics," the ultimate intellectual challenge. To understand geology, he says, study earthquakes; to understand the economy, study the Depression. "I don't know why there aren't more Depression buffs," he wrote in a book of essays about the period. "The Depression was an incredibly dramatic episode — an era of stock-market crashes, breadlines, bank runs and wild currency speculation, with the storm clouds of war gathering ominously in the background ... For my money, few periods are so replete with human interest."

The first thing any Depression scholar comes to understand is that nothing — not hyperinflation, megadeficits or irked Chinese creditors — is as bad as a full-on Depression....

Depression scholars — including Bernanke — tend to see the Hoover Administration's approach of balancing budgets and tightening belts during the downturn as a tragic mistake. They embrace the Keynesian view that aggressive government action backed by government money is needed to reverse death spirals by restoring confidence and reviving demand. Get people money, and they can buy shoes for their barefoot kids, so shoe factories can reopen and rehire, which gets more people money. "People saw the Depression as a necessary thing — a chance to squeeze out the excesses, get back to Puritan morality," Bernanke says. "That just made things worse." In contrast, the Roosevelt Administration's New Deal stimulus and try-everything attitude made real, albeit uneven, progress against the downturn.....

Bernanke quickly emerged as a staunch defender of the Greenspan Fed and its loose monetary policies. He suggested that raising interest rates to deflate the dotcom bubble before it popped would have been like using a sledgehammer to perform brain surgery. He delivered a call to arms against deflation, proposing ways the Fed could keep juicing the economy even if rates fell to zero. When he took over the Fed in 2006, after an uneventful eight-month White House stint leading Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, he said his top priority would be continuing Greenspan's policies. "Ben and I have never had a serious disagreement," Greenspan says.
In fact, Bernanke did make subtle changes, pushing for more transparency and clarity, speaking last instead of first at rate-setting meetings to avoid imposing his views. And while Greenspan had been laissez-faire about the Fed's oversight responsibilities, Bernanke pushed through long-overdue subprime-lending reforms in 2007. Still, Bernanke was as clueless as Greenspan about the coming storm. He dismissed warnings of a housing bubble. He insisted that economic fundamentals remained strong. In March 2007, he assured Congress that "the problems in the subprime market seem likely to be contained." The day before the global crisis erupted with a run on a French bank, the Fed was still saying its primary concern was inflation. "Bernanke had no idea what was going on," a foreign central banker tells TIME. "Once he got it, he really got it, and he acted swiftly and decisively. But wow! It took a while.".....

"We were the most aggressive central bank in the history of the world," says Fed governor and Bernanke confidant Kevin Warsh. The Fed used its magic money to shovel out more than $1.6 trillion worth of unconventional loans and is now buying over $1.7 trillion worth of unconventional assets....

In June, Bernanke was savaged on Capitol Hill for supposedly pressuring Bank of America to buy Merrill; by December, Bank of America was healthy enough to repay its $45 billion in TARP aid. In fact, all but one of the 19 financial behemoths subjected to stress tests have received decent bills of health, and taxpayers are on track to profit from TARP's wildly unpopular bank bailouts. Bernanke says major financial crises generally cost nations 5% to 20% of their national output. This panic seems likely to cost the U.S. a fraction of 1%. "How much would you pay to avoid a second Depression?" he asks. "I mean, this is a pretty good return on investment."


Monday, December 21, 2009

Grace and health

"Carl Rogers referred to the grace humans express to each other as unconditional positive regard. He claimed that it was the main factor in whether people are psychologically healthy or sick." --Radical Grace, J. Harold Ellens, p. xiii

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The fires of industry

"The old world will burn in the fires of industry, the forests will fall. A new order will rise. We will drive the machine of war with the sword and the spear...."
The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers (film, 2002)

Thursday, December 17, 2009


"Don't play what's there. Play what's not there."
--Miles Davis

I was flipping through a new book a few days back called The Divine Commodity by Skye Jethani.

He talked about Walt Disney's vision for epcot to be a new kind of living community. When Walt died before bringing this vision into existence, the new Disney corporate heads decided to do something that pleased shareholders: just turn the whole damned epcot project into a theme park. It failed for lack of imagination. Jethani makes a parallel with today's church (in the U.S., presumably):

"Our deficiency is not motivation or money, but imagination. Our ability to live Christianly and be the church corporately has failed because we do not believe it is possible....Wanting to obey Christ but lacking imagination, we reinterpret the mission of the church through the only framework comprehendible to us--the one we've inherited from our consumer culture." p. 18

"Without imagination any solution we conceive will be rooted to the very system we must transcend." p. 19

Problems cannot be solved with the same consciousness that created them

I don't really recommend the book, because there wasn't too much that held my attention after Jethani made this initial point. Oddly, the rest of the book seemed to lack imagination......

What about you? How do you imagine church? What if you let your mind and heart go and just think up something crazy....I mean, something just fucking crazy!!! (Using the word "fuck" tends to stir the imagination, studies have shown.) This question is open to all, of course, the churched, the unchurched, the sincere and cynical, and everyone in between. What do you see when you let you think of "church" and just let your imagination go? What do you see?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Joel Salatin and the healing of the food industry

A few clips from the recent Sojourners interview with Joel Salatin. Joel Salatin was featured in the 2009 documentary Food, Inc., which critically examined the mass production of food in the U.S.

What's the vision behind Polyface farm?
Healing--healing in all dimensions. we want to develop emotionally, environmentally, and economically enhancing agricultural prototypes throughout the world....We want to heal the land, soil, air, water, and, ultimately, the food system....

So there is a disconnect between humans and the earth??
For the first time in civilization, you can actually move into an area, plug your microwave and appliances into energy and not know where it comes from, get food from places and not know where it comes from, hook your pipe up to get water and not know where it comes from, put an outlet pipe in to take your sewage to places you don't know about, and in effect never have a sense of the ecological umbilical cord that connects you to everything that's most important.

How can we revolutionize the food industry?
Wendell Berry says that what's wrong with us creates more gross national product then what's right with us....
If you want to dream out of the box for a minute, here's an idea: If every American for a week refused to eat at a fast-food joint, it would bring concentrated animal feeding operations to their knees...
We have a sick, evil system, and a healing system, and the question is, which one are you going to feed?

What would you say to Christians who believe it is their biblical mandate to have dominion over the earth?
"You're wrong." (laughing) The scriptures are full of admonitions about creation. God knows when every sparrow falls. The Pentateuch is filled with references. Further, in 1 Corinthians 10:31, Paul says that whatsoever you eat or drink, whatsoever you do, do it all for the glory of God...He [Paul] took the most mundane, necessary things in life--eating and drinking--as his examples of how much God desires to penetrate into our lives...to the believer, all life must be sacred.

You can hear extended audio here:

Saturday, December 12, 2009

January 2010 novel of the month

Well, I hope you are all enjoying your read of Gilead. Make sure you drop by with comments and your thoughts on the novel.

We will start the new year with an important contemporary novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. President Obama is following through on his campaign promise to focus his attention on Afghanistan. As such, he is sending more troops. Khaled Hosseini, the author of A Thousand Splendid Suns, is an Afghan, and his novel focuses on the plight of two Afghan women. The novel is of deep importance for our current times in that Hosseini tells the heroic story of Afghan women set against the historic background of Afghanistan.

Through the novel, we get a look into the nation of Afghanistan through the eyes of two oppressed women. This is "a dense, rich, pressure-packed guide to enduring the unendurable." (Lev Grossman of Time) It is a difficult read, at times, as we feel the sense of helplessness and despair, mixed with indignation. It's tough in spots, but this novel is an important experience for our times.

The title, A Thousand Splendid Suns is taken from the poem "Kabul" by 17th-century Persian poet Saib-e-Tabrizi. Here is a selection from the English translation by Josephine Davis:

Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye
Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls

Our novel of the month is an exploration behind the walls, to the women, those "splendid suns" who shine.

Saturday, December 05, 2009


There has been a bit of a buzz about the new Conservapedia Bible Project. This is an attempt at a new Bible translation, a translation with a bold purpose, to boldly go where no man (gender exclusive language is preferred at Conservapedia) has ever gone before: to eliminate the "liberal bias" in the modern Bible.

Here is an outline and summary of the project, taken from the website:

Liberal bias has become the single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations. There are three sources of errors in conveying biblical meaning are, in increasing amount:
lack of precision in the original language, such as terms underdeveloped to convey new concepts introduced by Christ,
lack of precision in modern language,
translation bias in converting the original language to the modern one.
Experts in ancient languages are helpful in reducing the first type of error above, which is a vanishing source of error as scholarship advances understanding. English language linguists are helpful in reducing the second type of error, which also decreases due to an increasing vocabulary. But the third -- and largest -- source of translation error requires conservative principles to reduce and eliminate.
(accessed on 12/4/09; bold type not added, per website)

The first thing I notice is that the attempt here is to eliminate "liberal bias" and thereby eliminate "distortion" of the Bible. This "liberal bias" is "the single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations." Such bias is one of three "errors in conveying biblical meaning."

Presumably the Conservapedia project has the honorable goal of eliminating distortions in translation to get at "biblical meaning." It is also presupposed that the "conservative" perspective will get us closer to "biblical meaning" than would a "liberal" perspective.

The first question, of course, is how do we define "conservative" and "liberal." There is much nuance in these political views. But even beyond this, why must we choose between these two perspectives? Are there not other political perspectives that do not fit neatly into such categories? Simply debating the terminology of these two terms is enough to make one realize that the Conservapedia project is based on a very tenuous foundation. But even if one were able to establish the definitions of "conservative" and "liberal," I think it remains difficult to establish that a "liberal" bias distorts the original meaning of the text, while (by implication) a "conservative" perspective unlocks the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, and gives one access to the original meaning of the text.

But let us set aside these methodological flaws, because I believe that there are far more interesting and important issues. There is an underlying assumption made by Conservapedia that I think many modern folk have: the idea that we can get at some "original meaning" of the Bible if we can only eliminate our modern biases. My position is that such an attempt is absurd.

When interpreting the Bible (or any text), one always has a certain "perspective" or "bias" that we bring. That is, one of the most fundamental things that makes us human is that we are "historical." How we think, how we take in the world, and the opinions and perceptions we have are all influences by our position within history: our social situation, economic situation, geographical situation, the traditions that we inherit, the philosophies that shape us, the stories that we are told, etc. For example, we take it for granted that the earth goes around the sun. When we look into the sky, we see the earth going around the sun. For the pre-Copernican peoples, the sun went around the earth. When they looked up at the sun, they believed that the sun was literally moving around the earth. This then is a matter of perspective.

Because we are historical, we are biased. And this is not necessarily a negative thing. The 20th century philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer points out that our historicity makes any thought or discernment possible. And he is surely correct on this.

For Gadamer (and many others), there is no neutral ground, no unbiased perspective. That's okay. We are historically conditioned. No problem. We just approach interpretation with humility. But this is precisely the point that the Conservapedia folks seem to miss. They are looking to unlock the biblical meaning via a conservative perspective.

But....then again.....most people when they approach the Bible are trying, naively, to unlock the original meaning. That is, we so often assume that we can shed our historicity and somehow unlock this original meaning. Once we do so, we lament that so many other unfortunate fools remain trapped in their historicity, unable to see what we have seen with our undistorted vision.

Gadamer (and many others) suggest that we stop being so naive. Accept the fact that we are never going to have an "undistorted text." Gadamer goes so far as to suggest that every interpretation is a new work. Every translation is a new work. If we viewed the Bible this way, this would give us a bit of humility when we put forward our own interpretations of the Bible. It would also, perhaps, allow us to be more open to the perspectives of others. Perhaps we could recognize that each interpretation tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the text.

Now, one objection to this goes as follows: Why not just give up and say, "well, anything goes!"? Why not just let all interpretations have equal validity? It's all relative, so why even care? Why even interpret at all?

This is a good objection. But in reality, this conclusion does not logically follow. Quite the contrary, the fact that when we interpret we learn as much about ourselves as we do the text seems to make the task of interpretation more interesting and engaging. It also makes interpreting the Bible a community activity. As such, interpretation done in groups can help us grow in a more dynamic way. The interpretive task can be taken up in a serious way. The text should be respected, but equally so, we should respect each other. Gadamer calls this a dialogical approach.

The Conservapedia folks are in the unfortunate position of recognizing the bias of others, but not their own. This is something of a hermeneutical hypocrisy, but it is something that many of us are guilty of as we approach the biblical text. Had the Conservapedia gang recognized that the "conservative" perspective (whatever that it) is as equally biased as the "liberals," then there would be consistency. As it is, their attempt seems contrived and quite random to me. It appears presumptuous to suggest that a so-called "liberal bias" would result in distortions. But it is even more naive to assume that we can ever completely get at the original meaning of the text. Yet this naivety is something that most Biblical interpreters seem to be guilty of. The folks at the Conservapedia Bible Project have done us the favor of presenting an exaggerated example of the mistaken mindset that many of us take when we approach the Bible, or any other text.

We cannot eliminate our modern biases, and we cannot ever completely get at the original meaning. But that's okay. It's what makes us human.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love.”

[To read introduction notes about the novel, click here]

Gilead tells the story of ordinary people in a very ordinary Iowa town. John Ames is an old pastor writing to his very young son. He wants to leave a memoir, to tell his story, to trace his history. “Every life is built on the ruins of prior civilizations.” (p. 197)

There is very little that is sexy about the life of John Ames, his beloved little town of Gilead, Iowa, or the life he lived and the stories he shard. Gilead at points is sluggish and the stories lack gusto or any intense drama. Yet within it all, the novel captures the intersection of American politics, religion, and the relationships between fathers and sons in a profound way. Indeed, in a way that makes us realize that life, no matter how ordinary, is too deep for us; its sacredness is beyond the reach of our courage. The more I reflect on Gilead, the greater my sense of depth about the holiness of all of our very ordinary experiences. In fact, what is ordinary is always extraordinary. It is permeated with the sacred.

John Ames was born in 1880. He is now 76 years old and has resided in the little town of Gilead, Iowa his entire life. He married a much younger woman and now has a young son. But John Ames knows that he is dying, and so he writes to tell his son about the stories of his father and his grandfather, pass on the wisdom of the years, and open his heart in reflection. John Ames’s grandfather was a wild abolitionist, and the town of Gilead was founded (in part) as a stop for runaway slaves. His grandfather was a preacher. He was an uncompromising individual who gave to everyone in need and stole from his parishioners when he was in need. He saw visions and dreamed dreams. He was intense and a bit crazy. John Ames’s father was not impressed. He also became a minister, but he was a pacifist.

John Ames also becomes a minister. He married when he was young, but his wife dies without leaving any children. Through this his heart is deeply wounded. He becomes something of a recluse, burying himself in his books and his texts. He studies, he contemplates, he reflects. But he is deeply lonely. Years go by. He becomes wise, but he feels a deep disconnect from the world: “No matter how much I thought and read and prayed, I felt outside the mystery of it.” (21)

“You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. (7)

“I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly.” (56)

The Prodigal Son

His close friend Boughton has a beautiful family, and in an act of love and affection Boughton names his youngest son after John Ames: John Ames Boughton. And, in a spiritual sense, he gives the child to John Ames. At the blessing, Ames was going bless the child, Boughton surprises Ames by only then revealing that the child was to be John Ames’s namesake.

“But then when I asked Boughton, ‘By what name do you wish this child to be called?’ he said, ‘John Ames.’ I was so surprised that he said the name again, with the tears running down his face.

“It simply was not at all like Boughton to put me in a position like that. It was so un-Presbyterian, in the first place. I could hear weeping out in the pews. It took me a while to forgive him for that. I’m just telling you the truth.

“If I had had even an hour to reflect, I believe my feelings would have been quite different. As it was, my heart froze in me and I thought, This is not my child—which I truly had never thought of any child before. I don’t know exactly what covetise is, but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue of happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it….

“I’ll tell you a perfectly foolish thing. I have thought from time to time that the child felt how coldly I went about his christening, how far my thoughts were from blessing him. Now, that’s just magical thinking. That is superstition. I’m ashamed to have said such a thing. But I’m trying to be honest. And I do feel a burden of guilt toward that child, that man, my namesake. I have never been able to warm to him, never.” (188)

In this novel of fathers and sons, the primary focus is on John Ames and this namesake of his, whom everyone calls “Jack.” Jack lives a troubled life and returns to see the old Boughton who is sick and dying. Much of what John Ames writes is grappling with this prodigal son, Jack. In this case, however, John Ames must confront the fact that he has never been able to open to the prodigal, even though Ames is “the father of his soul.” (123)

Old Boughton, the biological father and the one who raises the prodigal, loves Jack more than all of his other children.

“And old Boughton, if he could stand up out of his chair, out of his decrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation, would abandon all those handsome children of his, mild and confident as they are, and follow after that one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound….he would utterly pardon every transgression, past, present, and to come, whether or not it was a transgression in fact or his to pardon. He would be that extravagant.” (238)

But what Jack needs is not the love of his biological father. What he needs is the open heart and soul of John Ames. This creates the scenario where the father (Boughton) cannot be the father. Old Boughton has extravagant love for Jack, but Jack needs extravagant love from John Ames. This is a love he never receives, and he spends his life acting out his sense of lovelessness, never able to establish love in any other area of his life.

To me this raises an important theological and spiritual question: Is God the father who cannot be a father? Is God, like old Boughton, the father who wishes to bless but cannot? God, the giver of all love, extends love unconditionally, like old Boughton. “Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true.” (246) But the love we search for is first and foremost from our earthly fathers and mothers. God, like old Boughton, gives children to fathers and mothers, their own namesakes. As such, the open hearts we most need are those to whose care we have been entrusted.

In this sense, the sons and daughters of humankind all live as prodigals. We need the blessing of the fathers and mothers of our soul. But the fathers and mothers of our souls are broken. John Ames coveted the sons of Boughton. This covetousness was resentment, as Ames says: “it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue of happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it…” As such, even when presented with the gift of a son, Ames could only reject the son. The son was an offense. The beauty of the gift was offensive. It was too much.

But Ames had his own difficult dynamic to work out. He was the good son, not the prodigal.

“As I have told you, I myself was the good son, so to speak, the one who never left his father’s house—even when his father did, a fact which surely puts my credentials beyond all challenge. I am one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained. That’s all right.” (238)

In the story of the prodigal son, the good son feels outside of the father’s love. He sees the good things lavished on the prodigal and he desires this extravagant expression of love.

Love, concludes Ames, has no proportion. It cannot be controlled or attained. It may be given to those who do not desire or need it, or it may be withheld from those who crave it the most.

“There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?” (238)

“Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” (209)

Sacred beauty

“There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s insufficiency to us.” (245)

Many of John Ames’s observations are reflections on the sacred beauty of ordinary life. There is no more ordinary place than Gilead, Iowa. But this only enhances its depth. “To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded.”

“You never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature.” (95) Life for John Ames amounts to an acknowledgement of the inherent sacredness of all things. His father eventually leaves Gilead, but John loves the beauty he finds in the ordinary. Or perhaps it is partly cowardice that keeps him in Gilead. Perhaps there is something of both, but there is certainly deep love.

True religiosity and spirituality is found in the normal. In the silence of an old, unadorned chapel, for example.

“When this old sanctuary is full of silence and prayer, every book Karl Barth ever will write would not be a feather in the scales against it from the point of view of profundity, and I would not believe in Barth’s own authenticity if I did not also believe he would know and recognize the truth of that, and honor it, too.” (173)

“We participate in Being without remainder.” (178)

Even our transience and human mortality is a part of this sacred world: “our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence.” (57) This comes clearly to fore in a deeply profound way when John Ames decides he is going to burn his sermons. Every sermon he delivered was written out in full. He spent the better part of his life and energy studying and meditating in order to write out each sermon. This was an act of prayer and devotion for him. And yet he decides, as his life is nearing its end that he wants the sermons burned. In a beautiful line of simple spiritual insight he says, “They mattered or they didn’t and that’s the end of it.” (245)


“Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And, therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing. But that is the pulpit speaking. What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage?” (246)

This comes as John Ames closes his reflections. It takes courage to acknowledge that there is more beauty that our eyes can bear. It also takes courage to recognize that “precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.” This is the point at which the two themes come together. This is where our openness to sacred beauty and the relationship of fathers and sons intersects. Life is a precious thing put into our hands. Sons are a precious thing put into the hands of fathers. Fathers, perhaps also, are precious things put into the hands of sons. To do nothing to honor that which is sacred is to do great harm.

But there is too much that is sacred. It is too great for us. And this is the root of much of the harm in our world: it is too sacred for us. Even the sacred beauty of the most ordinary families in the most ordinary towns is a sacred beauty too great for humanity to grasp. It requires courage. Our courage fails, and the world becomes a broken place. Generations come, generations go.

At the beginning of his memoir, John Ames says, “There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that.” (23) There is power in blessings because they acknowledge the sacred. And yet when the time came to bless his spiritual son Jack, John Ames lacked the courage. He was caught in his “covetise,” as he puts it. He rejected what he had coveted. But as grace would have it, John Ames gets a second chance. Near the end of the novel he relays this experience:

This morning I saw Jack Boughton walking up toward the bus stop, looking too thin for his clothes, carrying a suitcase that seemed to weigh almost nothing. Looking a good deal past his youth. Looking like someone you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry. Looking somehow elegant and brave.

I called to him and he stopped and waited for me, and I walked with him to the bus stop….

Then he stopped and looked at me and said, “You know, I’m doing the worst possible thing again. Leaving now. Glory will never forgive me. She says, ‘This is it. This is your masterpiece.’ He was smiling, but there was actual fear in his eyes, a kind of amazement, and there might well have been. It was truly a dreadful thing he was doing, leaving his father to die without him. It was the kind of thing only his father would forgive him for…..

“I understand why you have to leave, I really do.” That was as true a thing as I have ever said….

He cleared his throat. “Then you wouldn’t mind saying goodbye to my father for me?”
“I will do that. Certainly I will.”…..

Then I said, “The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.”
He shrugged. “What would that involve?”
“Well, as I envisage it, it would involve my placing my hand on your brow and asking the protection of God for you. But if it would be embarrassing—” There were a few people on the street.
“No, no,” he said. “That doesn’t matter.” And he took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested it against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers, of course—“The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly, or more sufficient, for that matter. Then, when he didn’t open his eyes or lift up his head, I said, “Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.” Then he sat back and looked at me as if he were waking out of a dream.
“Thank you, Reverend,” he said, and his tone made me think that to him it might have seemed I had named everything I thought he no longer was, when that was absolutely the furthest thing from my meaning, the exact opposite of my meaning. Well, anyway, I told him it was an honor to bless him. And that was also absolutely true. In fact I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment. He just studied me, in that way he has. Then the bus came. I said, “We all love you, you know,” and he laughed and said, “You’re all saints.” He stopped in the door and lifted his hat, and then he was gone, God bless him.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Einstein's God

I have been reading through the Walter Isaacson biography of Albert Einstein. I am about halfway through, and I have enjoyed the read. It has helped me familiarize myself a bit better with the scientific transition from a Newtonian universe to an Einsteinian (if we can call it that) universe. For those interested in Einstein or the scientific advances of his time, I highly recommend this biography.

I thought you might appreciate a few of Einstein's thoughts on God and religion.

"Science without religion is lame.
Religion without science is blind."

"At the heart of this realism was an almost religious, or perhaps childlike, awe at the way all of our sense perceptions--the random sights and sounds that we experience every minute--fit into patterns, follow rules, and make sense.....'The very fact that the totality of our sense experiences is such that, by means of thinking, it can be put in order, this fact is one that leaves us in awe,' he wrote."

Even though Einstein helped lead the way in quantum theory, he balked at the results of a chaotic universe. Einstein was ever and always a determinist, believing that the universe behaved according to a pattern that was set. He differed with many of his fellow religious Jews who tended to believe in free will. Einstein's determinism also put him at odds with his colleague and friend Niels Bohr; together they engaged many lively discussions on the topic of the random nature of quantum theory versus the determinism and predictability that was Einstein's dogma. In this context, Einstein would say, "God does not play dice." Bohr would respond in frustration: "Einstein, stop telling God what to do!"

Monday, November 23, 2009


Galatians 1:8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!

1:9 As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!

1:11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin;

1:15-16 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being,

1:23 they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." (NRSV)

"What is the gospel? The Greek euangelion has come into English by way of Latin and French as evangel (cf. German Evangelium, French evangile). The more common gospel derives from the Old English godspel "good talk," and--like the popular phrase good news--is based on the etymology of the Greek word....

"The gospel of Christ is accordingly an abbreviation that points to the content of the gospel, which has already been alluded to in Paul's additions to the opening (vv. 1b, 4). Thus the gospel, which in his [Paul's] view is perverted by the troublemakers in Galatia, is the proclamation that God has created salvation in the event of Jesus' death and resurrection....For Paul this understanding has consequences in regard to the law and circumcision, which he will then discuss in the following chapters....The foundation of his [Paul's] argumentation is primarily the content of the gospel, the Christology. Subordinated to it are the Scriptures (for him, only the Old Testament) and the history of the gospel in Paul's own history from his conversion before Damascus to his activity in Galatia." (Dieter L├╝hrmann, p. 12-13, Galatians 1992)

Given enough time and energy, I hope to blog a bit through the book of Galatians....we shall see....in any event, something strikes my fancy as I read through these opening verses in Galatians. Paul is an evangelist. The Greek words that we translate as "gospel" and "proclaim" (or "preach") are very similar, euangelion and euangelizo, respectively. Why this is interesting is the link between proclamation and content, the relation between the way in which one is proclaiming the gospel and the gospel that is being proclaimed....and....of course.....that makes me think of my own prior background as an evangelical in the U.S.

From my experience in evangelical circles there has been a very rapid decline in enthusiasm for evangelism. I think that this creates a bit of an evangelical crisis. Evangelism, as it has been defined in the last fifty years or so, basically reduces to proselytizing: convince others that Christianity (or "a relationship with Jesus/God" as the contemporary language goes) is the religion of choice. As I said, from my experience, the younger set is kind of losing its steam for this kind of approach. So, most people really don't engage in proselytizing, at least not in a direct person-to-person mode.

To address this crisis of evangelism, the evangelism of choice these days is marketing manipulation. (Yes, I am negatively predisposed!) Contemporary evangelism has taken the form of media to the masses. Evangelical film, literature, and staged church performances attempt to persuade the nonbeliever of his or her need to become a believer. This seems more subtle to today's evangelical--rather than "preach" to people and put them off with a direct confrontation (as they did in the good 'ole days), the contemporary evangelical prefers the subtle, nonthreatening methods of modern media. In my opinion, however, it is simply a manipulation tool like all other manipulation tools in today's media age. This is evangelicalism in the digital age, evangelism as advertising, manipulation, and marketing.

My observation at this point is that we need to evaluate the link between the gospel message (euangelion) and the "proclamation" (euangelizo). Simply put, the reason that so many evangelicals cringe at the thought of direct evangelism is that the message itself is so threatening, uncomfortable, and just plain awkward. Things can get a bit uncomfortable when you mention to people, "Uh, there's this place called hell that you are going to....."

The received gospel that most evangelicals inherited is this: Everyone is going to hell because each individual (no matter who they are or what they have done) is a sinner, thankfully Jesus died for your sins and rose again, you need to now confess you are a sinner and have faith in Jesus so that you are no longer a hell-bound sinner. In most evangelistic presentations (and this is a crucial point), the emphasis is on the gap between God and human beings. Each individual is responsible for "repenting," "having faith," feeling really really guilty and bad, or responding in some way ("having faith," perhaps?) that will close this gap. Some gospel tracts illustrate this by showing a cross that bridges the gap. Your job is to walk across this cross that bridges the great divide.

Most "biblical evidence" for this received gospel is based on cutting and pasting verses together from various parts of the Bible. This is no accident, because the above gospel is simply not the gospel that Paul teaches. (It is Paul, incidentally, who develops the most thorough New Testament theology of the gospel.) There are verses that one can find to support this gospel, but then again, one can mix and match verses to come to most any conclusion.

Paul's actual gospel spends scant little time (if any) expounding on hell or the sinfulness of individuals. It's there, no doubt, in the classic texts like Romans 1 and Ephesians 2. But the point of such discussions, as I read them, is not to condemn people as much as it is to contrast two approaches to life: one view of life where one is consumed with themselves and ultimately destroyed by their own ego-obsessions, the other view of life is a life lived by faith, walking with the spirit in love (agape) and self-less-ness. It's not really about saving your own self from hell. Actually, this sort of spiritual narcissism ("how can I keep myself from burning in the next life?") is one of the problems.

Paul's gospel is much more progressive. Radically progressive, actually. It is about a "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is about "reconciling all things" (Colossians 1:20). Furthermore, contrary to popular evangelistic efforts, the goal is not to elicit a spiritual experience of rebirth. Rather, the goal is to simply recognize that the fact that any person can join the happy band of the redeemed. For Paul, whatever happened on the cross took care of the gulf between God and man. So, living as a part of this merry band of new creationists is to simply recognize that you are already on the other side. The reconciliation has already taken place. There is nothing that a person needs to "do" to cross the bridge. That's been taken care of, which is why Paul spends most of his time talking about what it means to live out this new life, rather than talking about what we have to do to "get in" and "be saved."

So, maybe the reason why so many are losing interest in evangelism is because they never really had a very good gospel. And perhaps I can even be a bit more radical here: perhaps evangelism isn't about proselytizing. Perhaps it isn't about winning converts or "getting people saved." Maybe the great proclamation is simply to announce that there is no gulf between God and humanity, that God's focus for the world is reconciliation and peace, that personal and global transformation start with a gift of grace that is available to all, and that we need as many people as possible to get on board with this positive mission of reconciliation.

It's no wonder evangelism is petering out, or being relegated, impersonally, to mass media proselytizing. It's a dour, powerless gospel. Remember how Paul begins his letter to the Romans? "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for the deliverance (soterian) of all who believe." This is a racial inclusivity, not an exclusive who's-in-and-who's-out approach. In Paul's letter to the Galatians power and transformation are also the focus. The life of the spirit produces the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Perhaps evangelistic zeal could be rekindled if a gospel was proclaimed that was a bit more in line with the radical vision of Paul. What is the radical vision? Simply that there is nothing to do, nothing to do to cross a bridge or any such nonesense. Grace is the ultimate do-nothing, which paradoxically transforms. There is nothing to do except to believe in a new creation and live by this faith. This gospel must be beyond formulas, beyond definition, and even beyond words. This is so because the gospel is about grace, which is ineffable.

So, as I read the first verses of Galatians and as I reflect on the state of evangelism today, the pivotal question that arises, the absolutely crucial question for a Christian, is this: have we got the right Gospel?

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television. -Paul Hawken

Monday, November 16, 2009


"The most fatal thing of all is to satisfy a want which is not yet felt, so that without waiting till the want is present, one anticipates it, likely also uses stimulants to bring about something which is supposed to be a want, and then satisfies it. And this is shocking! And yet this is what they do in the religious sphere, whereby they really are cheating men out of what constitutes the significance of life, and helping people to waste life."
Soren Kierkegaard
The Attack Upon "Christendom"

This is an interesting commentary. My first instinct was to think of our hyper consumeristic society, a culture where advertising and marketing anticipates and generates our desires for corporate goods and services. But it is intriguing that Kierkegaard applies this idea to "the religious sphere."

As an existentialist, Kierkegaard believes in wrestling through our own inner worlds. Faith is a personal journey, not something that can be scripted by the church. Too often religion cheats us out of the significance of faith by averting us away from the struggle. This reminds me of what King David said: I will not sacrifice to my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.

The idea of sacrificing for anything is an obsolete notion in the U.S. Here we have our lives and faith scripted out. Marketing and advertising lines it all up for us: a meaningful life = these goods and services. Just sign the dotted line. Work a job that doesn't inspire you, or even one that you hate. Sign the dotted line. Take out as much credit as you can.

The system is artificial, though. And when it collapses, perhaps then we can struggle again. Then we can have a meaningful faith, something we have to really struggle for.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Gilead: Introduction

The next novel in my Human Narrative Project is Gilead by Marilynn Robinson. Gilead is a significant novel. After writing her first novel in 1980, the very successful Housekeeping, Marilynn Robinson did not publish her second novel until 2004. It was met with resounding critical success, winning the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Twenty-four years after her first novel,Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America's heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson's beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows "even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order" (Slate). In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life. From the Publisher's website

The novel is a deeply spiritual work, written from the perspective of a minister, John Ames, who has descended from a family of clergyman. It is Ames's letter to his young son, written in from the fullness of his heart and mind; Ames is suffering from a terminal disease. He reflects on the depth of his spirituality and theology, interacting with scriptures and theologians. Yet despite the overt religious musings, Gilead has won the respect of the critical world, both secular and sacred. Somehow, the honest and personal way in which John Ames reflects on his life and occupation is disarming to both the skeptic and to the religious fundamentalist. The novel is also of historical and sociological interest, examining the ways in which religion and faith have effected the formation of American society and the individuals who have historically shared very deep spiritual convictions and dogmas.

"At a moment in cultural history dominated by the shallow, the superficial, the quick fix, Marilynne Robinson is a miraculous anomaly: a writer who thoughtfully, carefully, and tenaciously explores some of the deepest questions confronting the human species. . . . Poignant, absorbing, lyrical...Robinson manages to convey the miracle of existence itself."--Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times Book Review

''Gilead'' is much concerned with fathers and sons, and with God the father and his son. The book's narrator returns again and again to the parable of the prodigal son -- the son who returned to his father and was forgiven, but did not deserve forgiveness. Ames's life has lately been irradiated by his unexpected marriage and by the gift of his little son, and he consoles himself that although he won't see him grow up, he will be reunited with him in heaven: ''I imagine your child self finding me in heaven and jumping into my arms, and there is a great joy in the thought.''

Gradually, Robinson's novel teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details. Nowadays, when so many writers are acclaimed as great stylists, it's hard to make anyone notice when you praise a writer's prose. There is, however, something remarkable about the writing in ''Gilead.'' It's not just a matter of writing well, although Robinson demonstrates that talent on every page: the description of the one-eyed grandfather, who ''could make me feel as though he had poked me with a stick, just by looking at me,'' or one of a cat held by Ames's little son, eager to escape, its ears flattened back and its tail twitching and its eyes ''patiently furious.'' It isn't just the care with which Robinson can relax the style to a Midwestern colloquialism: ''But one afternoon a storm came up and a gust of wind hit the henhouse and lifted the roof right off, and hens came flying out, sucked after it, I suppose, and also just acting like hens.'' (How deceptively easy that little coda is -- ''and also just acting like hens'' -- but how much it conveys.)

Robinson's words have a spiritual force that's very rare in contemporary fiction -- what Ames means when he refers to ''grace as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials.''
From the excellent review in the New York Times, Acts of Devotion, by James Woods

I plan on having my review posted on December 1.

Enjoy the read!

[The review is now posted: Gilead]

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Being still

Be still and know that I am God

Since last spring, I have implemented a regular practice of meditation and silent prayer. The main focus of this practice is to simply be silent and still.

Silence and stillness is a tricky thing. In stillness and silence, any number of thoughts and feelings might arise. Ideally, when one is meditating, all attention is focussed on breath. This is also called "mindfulness." When one is mindful of nothing but one's own breathing, then there is a deep sense of stillness, silence, and peace.

This is the ideal.

As I have engage in a regular practice of stillness, I quite naturally want to become better or more skilled at the practice. I want there to be less noise from my heart and mind. I want to enter into that sense of peace.

Many spiritual practices are like this. We tend to look at "spiritual growth" in terms of mastery: are we mastering the our particular moral or spiritual skill/art/practice? We tend to be critics of ourselves, measuring ourselves by some standard that we hope to achieve.

James Finley, a spiritual teacher, says that good meditative practices tend to be messy. This is a wise approach.

The act of stillness, silent prayer, or meditation is not about achieving some state of peace. It is not in any way about becoming better. It is an end in itself. It is a practice of grace. As a practice of grace, the point is not to "grow" or "achieve." The point is to just be. Just as I am.

When grace is the foundation, then we can embrace everything that we experience during stillness. If we feel distracted, then we can become aware of our distracted heart/mind in a gracious way. If we are deeply hurt by others, then we can become aware of our pain in a gracious way. If our soul is restless, then we can become aware of our feeling of restlessness in a gracious way. If our minds are busy and excited, then we can become aware of this positive buzz in a gracious way.

This practice of grace is a "letting be." Whoever we are is okay. We become grounded in something that is deeper than merely the rising and falling of our thoughts and feelings. Whatever it is that we are "grounded in" is mysterious. It isn't something that we can define or ever capture. From the perspective of the Christian tradition, this is the sense of "Be still and know that I am God."

By letting ourselves be, just as we are, we become less clingy to life. We become less controlling of life. We realize how much is out of our control, and how necessary it is to extend grace in the same way that we have experienced grace.

The practice of stillness, silence, and meditation is about honestly engaging the feelings and thoughts that channel through us. We develop awareness of who we are and surrender ourselves into grace.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

To Kill A Mockingbird

I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks. ~Scout, Chapter 23

Friends, this is the inaugural post of my Top 100 novel reviews: The Human Narrative Project. We are kicking off with a very special novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I thoroughly enjoyed my reading--it was a joyful and deeply thoughtful read.

Haper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic in American literature. It was an instant classic when it was published in 1960. Lee began her project as a collection of stories loosely based on her childhood in Monroeville, Alabama in the 1930s. After devoting herself to writing for four years, her novel became both a charming story of southern life and also a complicated description of southern racism, classism, justice, and equality. Published in 1960, we are only months away from Mockingbird's 50th anniversary, making this a timely moment to review and reflect on the novel's significance.

Part 1 of the novel centers on the life of Jean Louise Finch, aka "Scout." Scout navigates through the world of Macomb, Alabama. She is a lively and rambunctious young girl who prefers fighting and wearing pants to serving tea and wearing dresses. Scout, her brother Jem, and neighbor Dill combine their energy and imaginations to embark on wonderful childhood adventures

We also get to know Scout's father, Atticus Finch. He is a quiet and principled man, gentle and gracious to all. Atticus is the moral hero of the novel; he is bookish and works as a lawyer in town. Atticus's primary motto is that everyone should try to understand each other, to walk around in the other person's skin for a while and understand things from their perspective. This is also one of the primary messages of the novel. In the context of a southern society that is stepped in racism and classism, Atticus believes that all people have dignity and honor, just because of who they are.

Part 1 of the novel sets the background for Part 2. In Part 1, we primarily sympathize with the town. The novel is fun, humorous, and very entertaining. The narrative is engaging and humorous; Harper Lee is a remarkable story teller. But the divides between the races and various classes of Macomb also emerge in Part 1, and in Part 2, we primarily grapple with injustice, irrational prejudice, and what it might mean to do the right thing in this context.

Part 2 focuses on the trial of Tom Robinson. Tom is a black man accused of rape by Mayella Ewell. Her father, Bob Ewell, claims that he arrived at the house in time to witness the rape. The narrative leads us to believe that the accusation is false: Mayella tried to seduce Tom, Tom tried to leave the scene, and Bob Ewell came to the house in time to view this cultural taboo. In a rage, Bob Ewell beats his daughter, and they together agree to accuse Tom of rape. Atticus does his best to defend Tom, planting seeds of doubt in the jury's mind by exposing holes in the testimonies of Mayella and Bob and presenting circumstantial evidence that makes it unlikely that Tom could have caused Mayella's injuries. Despite Atticus's reasonable and honorable defense, the jury does not acquit. Although Tom is as innocent as a Mockingbird, the jury finds him guilty. Atticus whispers to Tom, gathers his coat and hat, and takes his "lonely walk down the aisle."

The children (Scout, Jem, and Dill) watch the trial from the segregated black section of the courtroom. They take it very hard. Scout and Jem cannot understand why someone who is innocent could be convicted. Tom Robinson gives up. While in the prisonyard, he tries to escape and is shot.

The novel ends with a rather odd sequence of events. Bob Ewell swears revenge on Atticus for humiliating he and Mayella in the trial. One night, while Jem and Scout are walking home in the dark of night, he attacks them. Boo Radley, the reclusive neighbor, stabs and kills Bob Ewell. The Sheriff and Atticus discuss the matter. The Sheriff is adamant: It would be a sin to expose Boo Radley to public scrutiny. The conclusion is that Bob Ewell fell on his own knife.

What strikes me in a profound way about Mockingbird is the way we are forced to engage the tension between our ideals (the way things should be) and the reality of living in a broken system. How does one respond to a system that seems to refuse to budge? Atticus is "looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds." (Malcolm Gladwell, p. 28 of The New Yorker, August 10 & 17, 2009) Atticus appeals to the heart, he lives a life of grace. He refuses even to condemn those who are a part of this broken system. They have blind spots, but they are still people. Everyone is broken. Atticus still choses to live in Macomb, to live honorably and treat all people with dignity and respect. Atticus embodies the words of Ghandi: Be the change you wish to see in the world.

On the other hand, what happens when people reach a breaking point? When they just won't take injustice anymore, and they stand up and fight it to the death?

Or what of those who believe that passively living in Macomb, Alabama is itself a way of allowing the system of injustice and prejudice to continue?

This is a tension that the novel forces us to engage: Do we appeal to the heart? Or take up arms? In fighting injustice, it is often difficult to see whether progress is being made, and it seems almost impossible to understand in the present whether or not we have made the right decision in how we engage the struggle.

Yet for me, the very way in which this question is formed and the flow of the narrative all suggest that this is very much a white novel. The central characters are white. They have the power, they hold all the cards. The black characters are mostly static and helpless: they are at the mercy of whether the whites will do the right things. The narrative never really explores the hearts and minds of any of the black characters, not to the degree that it engages Atticus, Scout, and Jem. That this is a white novel is not really a fault of the novel, but in my opinion it is a crucial point. The Black Power movement (and others) of the 1960s questioned the notion that blacks must wait for whites to give them permission to be empowered. This notion itself is one of the most fundamental ideas that must change before equal power and rights can be assumed. As a novel and narrative, Mockingbird operates within the paradigm that the whites must empower the blacks. The positive side of this is to force whites to take responsibility for injustice.

There is a certain element of deconstruction at work here. By this, I mean that there is a certain paradox and contradiction at work. On the one hand, those in power must seek to empower those who are treated unjustly. On the other hand, the very idea that one can "empower" another human being is mistaken: we all are empowered and must take power. In the very act of empowering, we are assuming an inappropriate stance towards others who are in fact our equals.

Mockingbird also challenged me at a very fundamental level. It is a novel that hits us in the gut. In a broken system, there are no right answers. There are no "correct" solutions. There is not neat and tidy way to wrap things up. Systems of injustice and oppression grow over time, they dehumanize. They create superior classes and races: "us" and "them." As time goes on and on, this brokenness cannot be undone. There is no ideal that will fix things. Sometimes we are idealists, striving for the good. Mostly we are pragmatists, just doing the best we can.

So we keep striving. Something calls us to give ourselves. We try to "walk around in someone else's shoes." But mostly we stumble.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Slaves and Heirs

One of the key distinctions for most versions of Christianity is a stark distinction between "saved" and "unsaved." There are the B.C. days, meaning "before Christ," and there are the "I'm a new creation" days that come after salvation. The salvation experience, then, is a complete ontological change, a drastic transformation from one spiritual state-of-being to another.

This ontological transformation is clearly an important part of the theology of the Apostle Paul. "Behold, all things have become new." Those who are of the faith are "a new creation." The language of the Apostle Paul is clearly aimed at transforming our belief about ourselves, to conceive of ourselves as radically different. Holy. Chosen. Loved.

I have always been a bit suspicious of this stark dichotomy between "believer" and "unbeliever." Common experience shows that "believers" are not quite as perfect as they would like to be, and "unbelievers" are not quite as "depraved" as many Christians would like them to be.

Apart from common experience, though, my recent study of Galatians shows that in the writings of the Apostle Paul, himself, there may be reason to question this dichotomy. I would like to turn your attention to Galatians chapter 4.

In Galatians 4, Paul begins by talking about how an "heir" (kleronomos) is no different from a "slave" (doulos), at least while the heir is still "under age" (nepios). In one sense, the heir is still the "ruler of all," but in another sense the heir is like the slave; this is true, until the time is set for the heir to receive the inheritance and actually assume their position as the ruler and lord.

For Paul, this is an analogy for the Galatians. They were at one time "under the elemental spiritual forces of this world" (hupo ta stoichia tou kosmou). This time period, though, was the time period of being "under age" (nepios). Paul uses this same word, nepios, to describe the situation of the Galatians when they were not yet believers. If the analogy holds, then, it seems that the Galatians, although not yet believers were still heirs. They were just still nepios, they were under aged and had not yet discovered the fullness of who they are.

This passage lead me to consider that the believer/unbeliever dichotomy might not be as sound as many like to believe. Is it possible that those who are living "under the elemental spiritual forces of this world" are simply not yet of age? Not yet come into the fullness of who they are? And if we take this a step further, perhaps wisdom and humility would suggest that none of us have completely arrived in this regard. That we are all coming into our own as heirs. While there may be a specific time at which the "heir" becomes "master" and assumes the control of the inheritance and the position of lord, it is equally true that becoming a wise, discerning, and benevolent is a life-long process. Theologians sometimes speak of this as "already, not-yet."

While a person may have a spiritual conversion experience, this does not yet mean that a person has fully come into their own as a person of faith. In fact, observation often reveals that if someone believes themselves to have "arrived," then this is often indicative of pride and ego-assertiveness. When pride and ego become the dominant sources of motivation in life, then one can actually experience a good deal of personal and spiritual regress. In this sense, making a sharp dichotomy between "believer" (those who have arrived or are farther along) and "unbeliever" (those who still need a bit of work to get on down the road a bit) might be counter productive.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

On surviving without faith

"If you have a particular faith or religion, that is good. But you can survive without it."
The Dalai Lama
From the Vancouver Sun, September 26, 2009

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Book

Well, my dear blogging friends, Tamie and I are in the process of a six week road trip. We are primarily camping and visiting friends in the pacific northwest. (You can get trip updates at her blog.)

We very much enjoyed our stay in Minneapolis/St. Paul with a few of Tamie's good friends, Dave and Kacey. The Twin Cities are a wonderful metro area. Of special interest to myself is how much the natural environment is integrated into the city. There are many lakes within the city, the Mississippi River, many trees, and an extensive system of biking/walking trails for alternative commuting. The Twin Cities are definitely an urban area that I could see myself inhabiting.

But to the main point of this blog post, which is to leak a bit of information: I have been working on the beginning phase of thinking through a book. This is my first shot at writing a book, and as such I am excited about the venture. The topic is grace, and the book will be an attempt to weave together many threats: theological writings on grace, philosophical issues, a New Testament exegesis of the Apostle Paul's thoughts on grace, and the implications that grace has for spiritual and psychological transformation.

Much of my personal pilgrimage in recent years has continually come back to the issue of grace. Everything in the lives we live in this world seems to contain conditions, everything has a catch. In philosophical and theological terms, everything is involved in an economy of reciprocity. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

My point is not necessarily to say that this situation (this economy of reciprocity) is wrong. Even Paul (see Romans 4) does not say that the economy of exchange is wrong: the one who works for his wages gets what he works for, nothing more, nothing less. But grace seems to move beyond reciprocity, which creates a problem because we have no reference for a non-reciprocal reception of anything! Normal experience teaches us that there is no gift given that has no strings attached. This is the world we inhabit, this is the perspective that colors the way we view others (and the relationships we cultivate). There is no free lunch.

Protestant Christianity of all stripes carries this idea into their idea of grace, albeit in a way that I consider to be somewhat disingenuous: God gives you the "free" gift of salvation.....therefore....you should should be grateful and do __________. Where many Christians differ is in the way they fill in the blank. But there always seems to be a blank. The result of this is that most Christians carry forward some brand of guilt--guilt for not being good enough or making enough "spiritual progress," moral failings, etc.

But Christianity is not going to be my sole focus. I hope to write a book whose relevance reaches non-Christians and the non-religious. Paul's gospel of grace, after all, was originally aimed at the "uncircumcision," the non-chosen ones. (See Galatians 2 for Paul's own description of his mission.) In its pure form, Paul's gospel of grace seems to have been a quite radical form of non-reciprocity. My hope, then, is to understand how this radical notion of grace might open up dialog between faiths and between those of faith and those without faith.

I want to reimagine what grace might be if we stripped it down bare. What if grace truly became the centrality of theology, doctrine, practice, and spirituality? What if there never were strings attached? Can we even begin to thing this way?

More and more I am realizing that this project is about using language to describe what is beyond and deeper than language. As such, one of the main focuses of this book will be to write what we might call creative theology; that is, using writing ot inspire the imagination, to open up possibilities and new beginnings, not just to close off the topic by presenting the conclusive word on the subject. Grace is to big for that, too deep. I hope that the writing will not merely be the transfer of theoretical information (as important as that is) but rather the kind of language that generates the spiritual and psychological creativity of the reader, leading the reader to both go deeper into herself and at the same time farther beyond herself than she could have envisioned.

Therefore, I look froward in the future to post questions and comments about grace. I am interested in your thoughts and questions on this project.

What about grace is of interest to you? How does grace relate to your experiences?

I think it would be fantastic to generate discussion prior to the writing of a book, so that the book possibly might be something that grows out of conversation and dialog.

You can leave comments here, or email me at erdman31@gmail.com.

Friday, October 02, 2009


"You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty."

"What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?"

"I cannot teach you violence, as I do not myself believe in it. I can only teach you not to bow your heads before any one even at the cost of your life."

"It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence."

"Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes."

"Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed. Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well."

"You must be the change you want to see in the world."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird: Introduction

"Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books." --Harper Lee

The first novel of our ambitious narrative project (a reading, review, and discussion of 100 novels) will kick off with Harper Lee's 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. I will post a review on November 1, and this novel will be the topic of discussion for the month. I hope you choose to read along, I look forward to your thoughts. And if you decide to post anything on your blog, send me the link so that I can link to your thoughts. For those of you reading ahead, the novel for December will be Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

Upon publication, To Kill a Mockingbird became an instant classic. It quickly became a best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize within a few years of publication. In 1999, it was voted "Best Novel of the Century" in a poll by the Library Journal.

Interestingly, this was Harper Lee's only novel. Only a few years after publication, Lee disappeared from public life. Her novel was four years in the making, starting out as a project to write out some of the stories of her childhood. The novel evolved, however, and became a commentary on southern life and racism.

Said Lee, "I never expected any sort of success with 'Mockingbird.' ... I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."

The book is loosely autobiographical, based on stories of Lee's childhood in Monroeville, Alabama in 1936 when she was 10 years old. The father figure and hero attorney Atticus Finch is a loose interpretation of Lee's own father. Another example is Dill, a character in the novel who mirrors Lee's childhood friend and life long collaborator, Truman Capote.

Lee describes her four year writing process as a "long and hopeless period of writing, over and over again." At one point, she threw the manuscript out into the snow, but she was convinced by her agent to go get it and send it in.

The novel's primary strengths are two-fold. First and foremost, Lee is an amazing story teller. She gives amazing descriptions of life in the south, primarily from the perspective of a child. This is a perfect example of the strategy "writing what you know." Although the novel is warm, engaging, and often humorous, the subject matter is racism and scapegoating, so the novel is also dark and gothic. The reader has to engage something very evil about human nature. As such, Mockingbird manages to capture the innocence and simplicity of childhood while never flinching from the dark and disturbing elements of blind, murderous racism. Somehow, the novel is both charming and wrenching, engaging the best and worst of the human condition.

The book was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1962 by director Robert Mulligan, with a screenplay by Horton Foote. The lead is played by Gregory Peck, and the film is considered one of the best and most true film adaptations of a novel.

In terms of stylistic elements, I have previously mentioned the remarkable story telling ability of Lee. Along these lines, it is intriguing to discuss voice. The voice of the narrator is primarily that of a child, Scout. But at certain key moments, this child's voice shows a certain reflectiveness and maturing of a much older woman looking back on her experiences. This blending of perspectives is subtle and accomplished with great skill, so it is difficult to notice. However, when reading through, look for the unique way that Haper Lee uses her narration voice: primarily childhood naivete with a smattering of an older and more reflective commentary.

Mockingbird definitely challenges conventional class and race perceptions. One example of the challenge to classism is a scene where Scout is chastised by her father and by the black servant, Calpurnia, for displaying naive classism toward a guest in their home. The challenge to conventional racism is also clear and the primary subject of the novel. One of the primary messages of the novel comes from Atticus who teaches his children not to judge someone else until they have "walked around in their skin."

And yet despite it's obvious uplifting and positive message, I think it would be good to look a bit deeper: does the story telling of the novel display classism, and even racism? For example, who is the hero of the story? A black man or a white man? Which characters receive the most character development, the blacks or whites? (Which characters are static versus dynamic?) The point of such inquiries is not to undercut the importance of the book or negate its positive impact, but simply to deal realistically with the text. For example, as a white man, I find the novel incredibly uplifting, but would I feel the same positive emotions if I were a black woman?

Again, this line of inquiry does not negate the positive contribution of the novel to race and class relations. Clearly the main theme ("walk around in their skin") is a message of respect for others who are different, but is there some sense in which the novel reduces blacks or the poor lower class? Is there some sense in which the ignorant poor whites need to be tolerated and the powerless blacks need to be rescued by the heroic white man? This is a subtlety that I would like to discuss. Do those who are morally enlightened and empowered in a society (like that of the novel) picture themselves as those who give power to the powerless? In this case, I still sense a subtle elitism at work.

And now, I have saved the best for last: the theme of the scapegoat.

Another important theme to look for in the novel is the scapegoat. I will discuss this more in my review, but there is something that I think is deeper in the novel than racism. Look for the way in which Tom becomes a scapegoat for the community, a way in which they are able to handle their differences through the sacrifice of an innocent victim. The sacrifice of the scapegoat becomes a way to discharge the deep anger and hostility of the individuals and the collective community. The scapegoat is innocent. Look for the theme of innocence in the novel and the way in which innocence is represented and often destroyed. "It's a sin to kill a mockingbird" because mockingbirds only sing and give pleasure to those who hear them.

There is much to discuss and I look forward to November.

Happy reading!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

For those skeptical of meditation

For the last year or so, I have been exploring the practice of meditation. Initially, my thoughts were somewhat in line with the Quakers: explore silence and make room for the voice of God. For me, this is still an important part of my meditative practice. However, I have also been intrigued by the many other benefits to spiritual, psychological, and even biological health.

As such, my good friends, I would like to direct your attention to an interesting link:
Opening to Our Lives

"Opening to Our Lives" is an NPR, Speaking of Faith episode with John Kabat-Zinn (air date April 16, 2009). Kabat-Zinn's approach is firstly a scientific and biological approach: what are the scientifically measurable results of meditative practice? In a nutshell, the conclusion of his thirty years of research is that meditative practice helps us to be more human and to have a better understanding of our humanness.

Kabat-Zinn's approach has been non-religious, and even non-spiritual. He doesn't see the need to have discussions about spirituality or religion, rather, he prefers to stick with issues of health. Meditative practice, Zinn says, is about mindfulness and awareness: "The real practice is living your life as though it really mattered from moment to moment. The real practice is life itself." So, for those who are a bit skeptical of meditation, this perhaps can be a bit disarming. The point of mindfulness, then, is not to reach some extreme, other-worldly state of mind. On the contrary, it is opening to what is right in front of us: "You've already got it." It is an awareness of the fact that everything we need is before us.

Zinn points out that much in our society is dependent on us being attentive and aware, and yet, ironically, this awareness and attentiveness is very rarely cultivated. We are told to pay attention in school and in classes. We are told to listen to what our teacher are saying. We are expected to be attentive and productive at work. And for all of this, we suffer consequences if we are not. But who comes along to teach us about being aware and attentive? And yet this is precisely the point of meditative practice and of mindfulness: to be mindful of the present moment.

In the church circles that I used to run in, people were told to be present with God or to "pray without ceasing," but the mental element of this was rarely if ever addressed. That is, it was just kind of expected that one should either try harder, listen to more Christian music, go to more church services, or spend more time reading/studying the Bible. (I remember hearing on more than one occasion) that if one was experiencing doubt or some sort of lack of energy in their faith, the best solution was to go out and witness to someone.) The above listed practices may have value, but the idea of just being present to God was absent. It seems so basic, but a part of being present to God is to bring our whole self in mindfulness of who we are. There is a certain need to be attentive and aware, to cultivate environments where we can just be--just be everything we are, for better or worse. Just to be present to God, in the silence and stillness. And then to just be present to God in the noise and the busyness.

"Only that day dawns to which we are awake."

Zinn cites Walden, above, and says, "Any moment we are not attentive to is lost." We lose ourselves in what we do in the world (or in our religious tradition); we lose ourselves in the image we want to put out for others; or we withdraw from the moment and hide ourselves, afraid to bring ourselves to the moment; or we lose ourselves in trying to grasp and clutch those things around us, to cling to them in an unknown sense of desperation. Meditative mindfulness realizes that what counts is the present, regardless of whether it meets our expectations.

Lastly, I was intrigued by a comment Zinn made about technology: "Our technology is getting more sophisticated than our understanding of ourselves as human beings." That is, as human beings we will have to change our method of being to adapt to technology. This presents certain dangers for us, if we lose the being element of "human being." This is where mindfulness and the life of meditative awareness comes in: to alert us to who we are as conscious beings. In the terms of philosopher Martin Heidegger: we are the beings for whom being is an issue.

Consciousness itself is our great gift. Yet it seems that it is so easily sacrificed in the name of so many other pursuits.In the book of Romans (chapter 12), the Apostle Paul talks about renewing the mind. That transformation is directly linked to what we do with this great gift of consciousness.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Human Narrative Project----In the Beginning

Well, my friends, it is time to roll back the curtain and reveal the list.

Me and my crack team of fiction-ologists have been working day and night, night and day, to put together the top 100 novels.

The Project: Read and blog through 100 novels

I am proud of this list. It brings together novels with beautiful language and literary quality and explores the nature of our shared human condition. In order to better explore the diversity of our humanness, I have diverged widely from the standard "white guys" top 100 novels list, dominated largely by white male authors. My list includes novels with authors from diverse ethnic backgrounds, authors with different sexual orientations, works by women authors, subject matters of deep historic and spiritual significance, and representation of authors from all continents (with perhaps the exception of the north and south pole!).

Special thanks to you, my readers and friends, for your many ideas and suggestions. I started out with a list of about 110 or 120 and then with the input of all my friends and fellow bloggers I probably had close to 200 quality novels to try to sift through. So, cuts had to be made. There were tears. But I am really happy with this list.

The Plan: The first novel will be.....drumroll please......fumbling with the envelope......where are my glasses???.......ah, here they are........To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. (Thanks to my good friend Nicole!)

And the crowd goes wild.

We will begin discussion of Mockingbird in November. On November 1, I will post my review of the novel. From there, the month of November will be dedicated to Mockingbird, so I will take the liberty of going deeper into certain themes, characters, or ideas of the text that strike me as particularly profound or blogworthy.

I also want to extend these discussions to other blogs, if there is interest. So, if you read Mockingbird and decide to write up a post on your blog, let me know, and I would be happy to link to it from Theos Project. There is so much to say about these novels, that I want to extend the discussion and open up the dialog as much as possible.

As important as it is to develop a list that attempts to diversify, it is equally important to have discussions that explores the legitimacy of our different perspectives.

My general plan is to give advance notice of which novels we will be discussing. In general, I want to try to blog a novel a month. But realistically, when we get to novels like Joyce's Ulysses and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, a bit more time may be required.

Lastly, I would like to start an email list for those who would like to receive updates in their inbox of the most recent happenings of Project Fiction. You can email me your email address: erdman31@gmail.com. Or you can leave your email in the comment section.

So, here it is, the official list:
as html doc.:
or as a .pdf:

Thanks again (I can't thank you enough!) to all of you for your excellent insights and help in compiling this list. I am very excited to explore our humanness together.

Friday, September 04, 2009

suffrage, equality, and healthcare

I have been recently pondering the status of healthcare in conjunction with other historic struggles for equality. What brings to my mind the parallel is the issue of constitutionality. Many people believe that any form of universal healthcare would be unconstitutional and a violation of the intention of the founding fathers. But the fathers also did not grant women the right to vote, not did they provide for equal and civil rights for people of color.

As a nation, we the people of the United States of America should measure our society by a better moral standard than the constitution, and we should enact laws that are a reflection of what we know is good and right.

It is important to step back in the middle of these intense policy debates about healthcare and ask some basic moral questions. Do we believe that we should take care of each other? Should a person's physical care depend on their income? Should profit truly be the primary motivation for our healthcare system?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Robert Kennedy and GDP

"If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America.

"And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year. But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

"Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."

Remarks of Robert F. Kennedy at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968