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.

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