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.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The great project of the human narrative

Recently my friend Aeyn posted a top 100 of the best novels. The list was supposedly compiled by the BBC (thought subsequent information indicates that this may in fact be an erroneous attribution!), and my friend Aeyn went through the list to indicate which books he had read.

I was a bit jealous of how many novels he could check off.

So, in order to bolster my fiction reading repertoire and expand my horizon of understanding for the human condition, I have a bit of a project for the Theos Project.

I am compiling a novel top 100 list. I will then (attempt to) read one novel each month until I have worked through all 100. Each time I finish a novel, I will post a review of my thoughts and responses, from which we can discuss the issues and questions raised by our reading of the novel.

Yes, that's right, our reading of the novel.

My plan is to post a month or two in advance which novel I am reading and when I expect it to be finished. This way, you my dear friends, can choose to read along if a particular novel strikes your fancy. In this way, we can explore together all of the subtle, sublime, and sensual nuances of human life.

But first things first--we must have a list!

I have a draft of 100 top titles that I have drawn from various, reliable sources....actually, I went a bit over 100, so there is some editing left to do.....but that's where you come in, because together we will finalize this list.

Your mission is simple:
(1) Add titles of novels to the list that you believe should be a part of this top 100 list.
and just as (or more) importantly
(2) Suggest which novels are overrated, or which should be cut from the list.

My primary two criteria for this list are (1) well-written, beautiful literature and (2) stories and insights that are compelling, insightful, and fertile for thoughtful exploration.

Other points of interest for me are: diversity is important, so authors who are non-white and non-male catch my eye; I'm a bit of a sucker for the classics; and I have included a bit more science fiction than most novel lists.

Putting together a top 100 list is a tall task, so I eagerly await to your feedback. Which novels on this list are good picks? Which are bad picks? Which novels should be on this list?

Here is the list, as an HTML page:

Here is the list as a downloadable .pdf:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Unconscious

John Doyle, a good friend of our blog has a post on the unconscious that I found particularly intriguing.

Here's a bit:

"Based on a count of receptor cells and their neural connections, neuroscientists estimate that the human sensory system takes in more than 11 million pieces of information per second. Based on studies of processing speed on tasks like reading and detecting different flashes of light, cognitive psychologists estimate that people can process consciously about 40 pieces of information per second. What happens to the other 10,999,960? It’s processed unconsciously.

That’s how we acquire most of what we learn about environment, people, language, routine behaviors, and social interaction. We acquire this kind of knowledge not by assembling a series of discrete facts or events — the kinds of things consciousness is good at attending to — but by mastering complex patterns. The unconscious is particularly good at dealing with patterns...."

Here is the link if you would like to read more:
The Adaptive Unconscious

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sacred words

In a previous post, Exodus, we discussed the idea of a "biblical worldview." There is a notion that has been popular in some Christian circles that the Bible teaches one worldview. It follows, then, that one of the main reasons to read and study the Bible is to understand this one worldview. If we understand this particular way we should view the world, then we can align ourselves with it. Put another way, we can "think God's thoughts after him" and think the way God wants us to think.

But this view seems subject to many problems. First, a worldview encompasses far more than one's intellectual beliefs. Most of what makes us tick is deeper and non-cognitive. Psychologically speaking, we can discuss the subconscious and the drives that dictate behavior. For example, what leads us to make an impulse buy? Or, conversely, to despise all impulse buying? Life is deep. It just doesn't work to cognitively believe the "biblical worldview" and then think that this will auto-magically translate into deep spiritual transformation. Life doesn't work that way.

Another snafu in "the one true biblical worldview" perspective is that the Bible itself seems to have many many different ways of viewing the world. One example of this is that the book of Proverbs seems to praise the wisdom tradition, while the book of Ecclesiastes seems to undercut and destabilize the wisdom tradition.

Perhaps we can develop an alternative approach to the Bible.

20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein spent much of his life thinking about language. He wrote a small little book called the Tractatus at a young age, believing that he had solved all of the problems of philosophy. Later he decided that there was more to be said.

Wittgenstein directed us back to language as "use." What is language? How do we determine meaning? Look to see how it is used. We share language with each other, so language is a public exchange, which is why we can understand each other. But for this reason, it also changes and evolves.

Language is like a city, Wittgenstein says, that evolves over time. We tear down buildings and build new ones. We redirect or widen roads. Having visited Wittgenstein's home city of Vienna, I could see that this was the case. The layout (or "language") of the city has clearly changed in accordance with the way people have needed the city to function. We do the same when we speak, we construct words and phrases and use them to do what they need to do. Currently, we are using new words and terminology to describe new technology. We are using this language to help us discuss and even to think about this new technology.

Without language we cannot think. The more restricted our language, the more difficult it is to understand and process our world. This is an insight that Wittgenstein made much use of in his philosophy.

So, what is the Bible? It is language that helps us think about God, life, religion, spirituality, psychology, wisdom, love, pain, relationships, self, sacrifice, and on and on the list could go.

The often-quoted passage on biblical inspiration mirrors Wittgenstein's idea of language as use. "All Scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos) and is useful for......" The passage uses the literal term "God breathed" (not "inspired") and it immediately qualifies it as a pragmatic thing: usefulness.

The language of the Bible is God-breathed in direct connection with its ability to be used as such. The early and medieval church had a much better understanding of this. They used the language of Scripture for many diverse purposes.

So, what if we make this suggestion: The Bible is something like a sacred language that some of us use to discuss life as we know it.

Because the Bible is language, it has limits. Theologians throughout history (Christian and non) have held that many of the most sacred things (including God herself) are ineffable. That is, they cannot be described with language.

At what point should language cease to describe? What is the role of silence? And can we use the language of the sacred texts together with silence? These are important considerations if we believe that some things are deeper than words.

These observations accord with what we know about ourselves and others: that much of who we are seems to operate in non-cognitive ways, ways that we can't always put into language.

So rather than being the foundation for a biblical worldview, the Bible becomes the language we use to describe what we can describe; but it also leads us to the limit of language, bidding us to explore areas of life and reality that the text itself cannot describe.

Describing Vienna is one thing, trying to navigate its twists and turns is quite another. Reading about a city has limits but is very useful. Experiencing a city opens it up for a whole new realm of experience. And then there is the evolution of a city that lies beyond all the comprehension of language or experience. This is the totality of its complicated developments as time winds on, the myriad exchanges between people and the experiences they share. There is no one philosophy of a city that is comprehensive for language to describe its totality. The totality of a city is greater than words, deeper than language. And in the same way, there is no theoretical, linguistic description that can do justice to life or to the sacred.

There is no one biblical worldview. There is language. There is us. There is reality. There is God. Somewhere in that mix something meaningful and profound may arise. In my mind, this makes our analysis of the Bible far more important. Rather than just a systematic answer key with a "biblical worldview" as its end goal, we must continually examine and re-examine the language and words we use. "It takes a village." Yes, but more than that, our views are formed by the language we use. This is actually where the "biblical worldview" people get it right: our words are important. But we all must struggle with our language, because in the end it isn't about getting the right language, but about understanding something much deeper. Possibly, it is about not understanding something.

For this reason, the language of other denominations and other religions (and non-religions) becomes important. Not to prove them wrong, but to serve as a possible corrective to our language.

We must discuss, we must think, we must engage, and paradoxically we must let be.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The System, our food, and healthcare

From Getting Real about the High Cost of Food:

"Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won't bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench. He's fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he'll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population. And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That's the state of your bacon — circa 2009."

I recommend reading every itty bitty bit of Getting Real about the High Cost of Food.....this topic follows up a bit on our discussions about The System, the American way of living that denigrates life, treating everything around us as economic units that fit into a grand system aimed primarily at productivity and profit. It teaches us to objectify others and ourselves, cutting us off from understanding and developing a genuine and authentic self.

We've transformed the essential human profession — growing food — into an industry like any other. "We're hurting for job creation, and industrial food has pushed people off the farm," says Hahn Niman. "We need to make farming real employment, because if you do it right, it's enjoyable work."

Most of us don't question the food we eat, and yet it is one of the most basic and fundamental elements of being human. We buy what we are sold. We eat what we are told.

And yet we really are what we eat. But we don't have time to care about food.....we are usually too busy producing stuff, buying stuff, or being entertained.

And now..... drum roll please!......tying it all in to healthcare:

At a time when the nation is close to a civil war over health-care reform, obesity adds $147 billion a year to our doctor bills. "The way we farm now is destructive of the soil, the environment and us," says Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)."

And this excellent conclusion:

Whether that happens will ultimately come down to all of us, since we have the chance to choose better food three times a day (or more often, if we're particularly hungry). It's true that most of us would prefer not to think too much about where our food comes from or what it's doing to the planet....The industrial food system fills us up but leaves us empty — it's based on selective forgetting. But what we eat — how it's raised and how it gets to us — has consequences that can't be ignored any longer.

(FYI, we had a good discussion in the comments section of a prior post, The System and Food Inc..)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


"If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." --1 Corinthians 13

I receive regular email updates from a Christian organization that is dedicated to Christian apologetics and teaching "the Christian Worldview"....or at least their particular version of it!

A recent post by Brannon Howse, We Must Reclaim the Church Before We Can Even Begin to Reclaim the Culture, extols the virtues of a new book by Ken Ham, Britt Beemer and Todd Hillard entitled, Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it. The book takes note of the mass exodus from the traditional, evangelical church. The reaction to the "crisis" of young people leaving churches is not a matter of debate: "The answer to this crisis is Biblical worldview and apologetics training."

As one who has extensively studied Christian apologetics and a "biblical worldview," I would like to say a few words regarding modern fundamentalist Christian apologetic movements. It is a simple truth, but one that obviously still gets missed in some circles: you can't brainwash yourself into genuine faith. At least Brannon Howse is honest with us. He believes that all you have to do to keep people in churches is to give them the right "training." It actually sounds quite creepy, like the next step might be to fly the whole group down to South America and establish a paradise for Christians who have "the biblical Worldview."....my apologies as I digress a bit into sarcasm and satire, but there is an important point to be made. People cannot be "trained" to have genuine faith just by giving them the so-called "true worldview." I can testify from personal experience that it doesn't work. Several years back I found that the more I digested and devoured Christian apologetic books, the more I found a growing spiritual emptiness. In my soul I was sincere in my quest, and in the process I was learning. And I would even say that I was in some sort of process of spiritual growth. But there was something deeper that was telling me that it was time to move on, to expand and explore. Having a true "biblical worldview" wasn't The Answer or The Truth.

Then I found that the whole idea of one biblical worldview is itself a very disrespectful way to approach the Bible. The Bible does not present itself to us as a worldview textbook. It is true, that it is possible chop the Bible up, pull out verses here and there, and assemble a grand systematic approach to the world. But as I engaged the text itself, in its original languages and in some of its original settings, I found that Scripture is a collection of highly diverse texts, with a wide range of genres (some that are even original to the Bible itself), written by many different persons over a long period of time. Gradually I realized how un-systematic the Bible was, and I was able to relax, which opened up the Bible to me in a way that renewed my faith and pushed me forward.

This is not to undermine the process of thinking.

The life of the mind is important, critical even. What we think, the beliefs we hold, our philosophies and perspectives on what's going on in the world--all of these are crucial. We are not other-than our minds. Just like we are not other-than our bodies. And yet we can't bet the farm on one Absolute Truth, one so-called "biblical worldview." That's not the way our minds were meant to work. They were meant to be used to develop discernment for the perspectives of others, to learn to listen well, particularly to the voices of the poor and oppressed. To be truly wise.

I see an irony: "Training" the minds of the young to believe that only one perspective has all of the answers actually produces mind-less-ness. The healthy mind is active in engaging other perspectives, not for the purpose of proving one's own perspective but in order to learn and grow.

Let's bring this discussion back to the mass exodus.

"Training" the minds of the young is not the answer. But more modern, American methods of evangelical church aren't really working either: Churches are modeled to look like coffee houses, big bucks are spent on youth group pastors and youth group programs, nifty upbeat sermons are designed to be "relevant" by tying in a theme with the latest and most popular Hollywood film releases (I remember a sermon series about "being like Neo and getting out of the Matrix of 'the world'"), worship bands with pop worship sounds and smoke on stage, etc. But all of these cool and hip upgrades don't seem to be saving our souls. In addition, I have to agree with my fundamentalist brothers in their criticism of the contemporary church scene: it seems to be a watered down version of faith. High on hype, low on substance.

Even though the contemporary evangelical church manages to stay afloat during this mass exodus, there is still the sense that it isn't doing any real, substantial good--that it isn't producing genuine transformation. It starts to feel like spiritual fast food: do the drive thru and grab a snappy sermon with a side of Jesus music and slurp down a latte while you chat with a few folks in the lobby before you go. The contemporary church scene seems to be a spiritual support group to aid and abet the status quo culture of the white American middle class. In short, to me there is this pervasive feeling of spiritual narcissism. Church begins to exist as a therapeutic aid to our modern American lifestyles: the odd and remarkable blending of our puritanical work ethic with our superficial consumeristic drive to buy more and more cheap, disposable goods.

So, what of the mass exodus?

The post by Brannon Hows summarizes (from the book he is reviewing) the statistically-supported characteristics of this flight from Egypt:

A mass exodus is underway. Most youth of today will not be coming to church tomorrow. Nationwide polls and denominational reports are showing that the next generation is calling it quits on the traditional church. And it's not just happening on the nominal fringe; it's happening at the core of the faith.

Only 11 percent of those who have left the Church did so during the college years. Almost 90 percent of them were lost in middle school and high school. By the time they got to college they were already gone! About 40 percent are leaving the Church during elementary and middle school years!

If you look around in your church today, two-thirds of those who are sitting among us have already left in their hearts; it will only take a couple years before their bodies are absent as well.

The numbers indicate that Sunday school actually didn't do anything to help them develop a Christian worldview...The brutal conclusion is that, on the whole, the Sunday school programs of today are statistical failures.

Part of the concern is that the mere existence of youth ministry and Sunday school allows parents to shrug off their responsibility as the primary teachers, mentors, and pastors to their family.

A few things intrigue me. First, that the young are spiritually checking out at a very early stage. They will go through the motions, but they are only biding their time. Also of interest is that Hows used "heart" language. "If you look around in your church today, two-thirds of those who are sitting among us have already left in their hearts." Right. I agree. It's not a matter of "training" people's minds to think correctly. The problem is a spiritual problem, a lack of depth and meaning in the church itself. Like so many American made products and services in this disposable society, churches appeal to the superficial rather than engaging the deep and stirring something more fundamental than emotion, rationality, or social networking.

My general feeling is that the mass exodus is a good thing. There are those who wish to stay in traditional churches, and I certainly do not wish to disparage these efforts. Truly. I do not mean to suggest that there are not deep evangelicals. There are. But even they are often quite frustrated by what is going on around them. Kudos to those of you who are staying in traditional churches and trying to tap into something deeper. I support you.

However, for many of us, the call is to pack up our travel gear and head out, searching for something deeper and cultivating the calling that we see before us in our own souls.

This is the pilgrim's path.

The bottom line is transformation: are we tapping something genuine and life changing within us, a deeper encounter with self, God, and the world that leads us to make a real difference in the lives of others.

"You equip yourself for transport, then wait to see what happens. Use the things you find around you to assemble a rudimentary shelter. Experiment with ways of distinguishing food from poison. Allow yourself to become a gill-breather. Experience moods that have no names." (p. 73 of John Doyle's The Stations)

“On just about any dimension you can think of, humans tend to clump together. Go farther and farther away from the center and you see fewer and fewer people. It’s hard not to see evidence of some sort of force at work, pulling everybody toward the center. Maybe the force emanates from a particular point in the world, like gravity, pulling people in. Maybe it’s a force that’s embedded within individuals, impelling them to move toward each other....But what about the outliers, the people who resist the pull to the center? Do the outliers lack the normalizing force within themselves? Do they try to huddle with the masses, only to find themselves drifting away? Do they float effortlessly above the pull of gravity? Or do they exert a counterforce that drives them out of orbit? Maybe the outliers are already moving toward what’s destined to become the new center of gravity, and the rest of us will eventually find ourselves being drawn toward them. For good or for ill. (p. 47)

Friday, August 14, 2009

guest post: why the literary-ness of "the shack" matters

Hello, y'all. This is Tamie, Jon's partner in life and crime, and guest writer for this blog post. Jon and I have been discussing the novel The Shack, by William P. Young, over dinner. I just read it, finished a few days ago, and he read it about 8 months ago. He asked me to write up some of my thoughts here.

When I first heard about the book, in conservative evangelical circles, I imagined that it was poorly written and full of half-baked theology, my biases being what they are. Which is to say that I associate that sub-culture (conservative evangelical American Christianity) with sentimental art and anti-intellectualism. I'm not saying, of course, that every person who participates in the sub-culture prefers only sentimental art and is anti-intellectual. I'm saying that the sub-culture, as a whole, has that feel about it. I'm not sure why this is, either.

But then some of my non-conservative-evangelical friends began recommending the book to me, saying it was worth the read, or that they liked it, or that they thought I should read it (for vague reasons; I should have asked them why they thought I should read it!). So finally I relented. I read the book.

It turns out that the book is sentimental and full of half-baked theology. Not only that, but it is poorly written, and succumbs to racial and cultural stereo-typing. Which actually surprised me, because by the time I set out to read it I was convinced it would be pretty good, my recommenders being who they were.

There are four points that I will make in this post:

  1. All of the creativity and originality in The Shack don’t add up to much, because the unspoken assumption of substitutional atonement theology overwhelms/undermines the theological and spiritual creativity of the story.

  1. The book is poorly written, and this really matters.

  1. The story ain’t as creative and original as the hype would have you believe. This, too, matters.
  2. Why the heck does evangelical/conservative/American Christianity so often tend toward anti-intellectualism and kitsch?

And then, at the end, I will make a fifth/concluding point which is: If you want to read quality fiction that is deeply theological, and will rock your spiritual socks, I have some suggestions.

First though, let me just say a few positive words about the book. The book, and the greater project it represents, is well-intentioned. I believe that the authors really meant to write a new vision of God. They weren't trying to make a quick buck. They may not have been trying to make any bucks at all. It's very clear that they wanted to get across a new and transformational vision of what living in relationship with God could look like.

It is also clear to me that many readers of the book are very hungry for a new/transformational/creative vision of God. They're tired of the white-male God, tired of the irrelevant/angry/irrational God. I think that this is probably the number one reason why the book is so popular. Because people want to know God in fresh, lively, substantial ways. This desire is good! But, because the book is such a mixed bag, it not only does not deliver on the carrot it dangles in front of the reader, but it also manages to reinforce problematic theology and cultural stereotyping.

One final note. I'm going to assume that my audience has read the book.

Point #1. All the creativity and originality in The Shack don't add up to much, because the unspoken assumption of substitutional atonement theology undermines whatever cool notions of God that the story puts forward.

I had hope, for about the first half of the book, that the story would suggest a new idea for the meaning of Jesus' death/atonement etc. After all, it's a pretty creative book. God as a black woman (we'll get to why "God as a black woman" is problematic later...), the Spirit as an Oriental see-through feminine being. Definitely more colorful, on the theological front, than Aquinas or Calvin. But then I got to Chapter 11, in which the whole story does indeed go bankrupt. Chapter 11, titled "Here Come Da Judge," is the one in which Mack is forced to encounter "a tall, beautiful, olive-skinned woman with chiseled Hispanic features, clothed in a dark-clothed flowing robe." She is a judge; she is also Sophia which, depending on how you read the thing, means she's either a personification of God's wisdom, or else another form of God Herself.

In this chapter, Sophia informs Mack that he must decide which two of his children will be sent to hell. He has been asking why God doesn't do something about the brokenness of the world, and Sophia answers that God already has: She sent Jesus to die. Sophia says, "She [God] chose the way of the cross, where mercy triumphs over justice because of love. Would you instead prefer she'd chosen justice for everyone? Do you want justice, 'Dear Judge'?" Leaving aside the fact that a sarcastic-but-deadly-serious God is profoundly disturbing, I want to point out the unspoken assumption here.

The unspoken assumption--and I think it's fair to say that it's the
author's unspoken assumption, not just the characters'--is that human "sin" demands "justice" and what does that justice look like? It looks like damnation, eternal torture and punishment and separation from God. In other words, the automatic and obvious consequence for falleness, or sinfulness, is eternal punishment and separation from God. This is Atonement Theology 101. It is straight-up, orthodox (in the sense of widely accepted and non-heretical) theology.

So: why? Why does doing something against God's will, or something bad, or something harmful, have to equal either death, or punishment, or eternal damnation (depending on how you take the theology)? I don't know. I've heard it explained like this: God is holy and perfect, and therefore can only tolerate holiness and perfection in His presence. So, when we are bad then we are un-holy and imperfect and cannot be in God's presence. So far at least the argument is logical. It's a rather thin definition of holiness and perfection, but at least B follows from A. But then there is this jump in logic that I can't for the life of me figure out: The answer to this unsolveable state of affairs is to
kill someone. Um....hunh? Does this strike anyone else as just slightly peculiar, a little bit of a leap, maybe not entirely intuitive?

Sophia demands that Mack must send two of his children to hell. Mack squirms and resists and says he won't send any of his children to hell, he can't possibly do it, but Sophia forces the choice on him. So finally he begs to be sent to hell in place of his children, and Sophia congratulates him on his choice, and we're left to clearly understand that God sacrificed Jesus (or Jesus sacrificed himself) rather than let his children go to hell. It's a little bit unclear at this point whether the children have to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior for this deal to kick in. That's left ambiguous for the whole book, and I think you could make a case that Young is saying that the work of redemption continues beyond human death, at least in some cases.

But my question is:
who says it is ordained that people have to go to hell in the first place? Why does the imperfection of God's creatures necessarily entail the savage wrath of God? Why does our fragility and confusion have to equal God's torment and rage? Why do people believe that God must kill someone (either us or Jesus) in order to be able to love and forgive? Why?

This is the theology on which
The Shack turns, and frankly it's theology that is old news. We've heard it all a hundred thousand times before. Same old arbitrary and angry God, full of bloodlust, whose version of compassion is either, depending on how you look at it, murdering His own son, or committing suicide.

Point #2. The Shack is poorly written, and this really matters.

The dialogue doesn't sound real. There are lots of filler sentences. There are reams of descriptions involving words like "wonderful" and "beautiful" and "magnificent"....all of which are fine words for people to use when you describe the Grand Canyon to your buddies, or when you tell your girlfriends about a first date, but none of which should really be used in published writing. Or, very very rarely. For God's sake. The characters are one-dimensional, resulting mostly from the fact that the narrator tells us about the characters, but does not show us; he does not create these characters as real and believable and sympathize-able characters on the page. The plot really isn't a plot, because the purpose of the book is not to tell a story; the purpose is to teach theology.

What is the purpose of art? It's an age-old question, comrades. And of course there is no one right answer. But here's my take. My number one goal, in creating (I write) is to tell the truth. My number one question, when I arrive at a piece of someone else's creation, and decide whether I will give myself to it is: Does it tell the/a truth? If it seems somehow dishonest--it it seems trite, or overwrought, or cruel, or all hung up on being clever (this is perhaps one of the most insidious problems with art in the last 100 years)--then I feel I cannot trust it.

There are many purposes for art. To celebrate. To lament. To make love with/to the world, or to make love to your medium, or to make love to a community (as in when a band creates music together). To be as alive as possible. To rage. To worship (photography is often a form of worship, it seems to me; photographers make pictures to adore the earth as it is).

But, whether art is celebrating or raging, if it is good art, it must be also telling the truth. Don't ask me what this means, to tell the truth. That's a tough and deep question that I suppose it ought to take us our whole lives to answer. It seems that we can begin to get at what it might mean by engaging the works of folks like Lucien Freud (painter), Marilynne Robinson (writer), Cole Porter (musician), Anna Akhmatova (poet).

Form and quality are not incidental to telling the truth. I'm not saying that you have to be a maestro to tell the truth. But I am saying that good art, art worthy of the name, will tell the truth. I'm also saying that the better you are at your craft, the deeper you'll get in your truth-telling. When the craft is not done well, then truth is ill-served.

One final word on this point. Sentimentality drives me crazy, and this book is full of it. Mack is crying in every other paragraph. The Holy Spirit and Jesus and Mack and God are constantly kissing each other on the lips (which could be cool--Jesus making out with an adult man--but it just isn't, because it's all so over the top and unbelievable). There are continual explosions of color and emotion. It's like a Hallmark card on crack. It's really frustrating. It is frustrating because it does injustice to the depth and span of human experience and emotion.

But the worst part of this sentimentality is the fact that it's all grounded in a story about an abducted, murdered little girl. And that just feels cheap. And sick. And wrong.

Point #3. The story ain’t as creative and original as the hype would have you believe. This, too, matters.

When I first got to the section where God is a large black woman I was like cool, God as a big black woman! It felt new, and it also felt reassuring. The image of God as a southern black mama who can hug you hard and long and make your troubles feel not so bad. Who welcomes you in with corn bread and iced tea.

But after a couple chapters I was like hold on a second. It was reading Newsweek that did it for me. There was an article in Newsweek (July 13) about racism, written by a black woman. She writes, "I do not think we are a nation of people secretly yearning to scream racial epithets and reinstate Jim Crow. I think we are a nation of people deeply influenced by the stereotypes endleessly perpetuated in our culture. The sassy black hairdresser, the Asian computer geek, the ditzy blonde, the dorky white guy, and the cool black best friend--each of them are stock characters in our culture." Suddenly I realized that The Shack also makes use of stock characters, and that I bought it, at least for a day or two, hook, line, and sinker. I bought into the idea that all "big black women" are pretty much the same. The book doesn't develop her as a character, really. We don't get to know her. The author/narrator seems to be assuming that we'll all just understand what a big black woman is.

Then John Doyle, good friend of this blog, pointed out that the mysterious Oriental woman (ie., the Holy Spirit) is also a type. A sexualized type, too. Jesus is too, actually: the rolled-up-sleeves, plaid-shirt, big muscled all-around good guy type. Like a really nice Midwestern blue-collar worker, except Jewish and with brown hair. Oy ve. As it were.

Let me see if I can try to get at the crux of the problem here. The problem here is that the book seems to be all innovative and creative....God as a Black woman! The Holy Spirit as the mysterious Oriental woman! Sophia as a sexy Latina!....but really, so much of it is reinforcing stereotypes. And not just racial stereotypes, but sexual stereotypes. (The aggresive sexy Latina.)

And it seems to be innovative in terms of theology. But...is it really? The great Problem of Evil is one that I've wrestled with for as long as I can remember. There were a few points during the story that I thought maybe the author or narrator or Mack or Jesus would come up with something helpful to say, about why there is suffering and where God is in the midst of it all. But that didn't seem to happen. The supposed comfort just felt cold.

Point #4. Why the heck does evangelical/conservative/American Christianity so often tend toward anti-intellectualism and kitsch?

I don't know.

And now, in conclusion. Quality fiction that wrestles with theological questions. Here are a few suggestions.

Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger
The Chosen, by Chaim Potok
The Plague, by Albert Camus
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
Home, by Marilynne Robinson
The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Monday, August 10, 2009

Health Care

"They [Republicans who oppose health care reform] are ideologically aligned with the industry. They want to believe that the free market industry can and should work in this country like it does in other industries. They don’t understand, from an industry insider's perspective, like I have, what that actually means and the consequences of what that means to Americans." --Wendell Potter

Wendell Potter is the former Vice President of corporate communications at CIGNA, one of the United States' largest health insurance companies. In June 2009 he testified against the HMO industry in the US Senate as a whistleblower.

Potter began his journey towards resigning and becoming a whistleblower in July 2007, when he saw a touring free clinic in Virginia. "What he saw appalled him. Hundreds of desperate people, most without any medical insurance, descended on the clinic from out of the hills. People queued in long lines to have the most basic medical procedures carried out free of charge. Some had driven more than 200 miles from Georgia. Many were treated in the open air. Potter took pictures of patients lying on trolleys on rain-soaked pavements."

He is now a fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy. [from wikipedia article]

The following clips are a three part interview with Bill Moyers and Wendell Potter.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part three makes some interesting points. The main thing is that of a conflict of interests. Because U.S. health care insurance is a for profit venture, this means that profit is increased when medical payments are minimized. The less that is paid to medical claims, the more money there is for executives and investors. This is the "medical loss ratio." Investors dump an insurance company if the medical loss ratio is not agreeable. What makes a medical loss ratio look bad: payouts for patients.

Good for patients = bad for investors. The more premium money that is used to pay medical bills = less profit for investors.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

There's room for you in The Shack

The following is from William Young's The Shack. We are picking up in the middle of a dialog between Mack and Jesus:

"I don't have an agenda here, Mack. Just the opposite," Jesus interjected. "I came to give you Life to the fullest. My life." Mack was still straining to understand. "The simplicity and purity of enjoying a growing friendship?"
"Uh, got it!"
"If you try to live this without me, without the ongoing dialogue of us sharing this journey together, it will be like trying to walk on the water by yourself. You can't! And when you try, however well-intentioned, you're going to sink." Knowing full well the answer, Jesus asked, "Have you ever tried to save someone who was drowning?".....

"Mack, the world system is what it is. Institutions, systems, ideologies, and all the vain, futile efforts of humanity that go with them are everywhere, and interaction with all of it is unavoidable. But I can give you freedom to overcome any system of power in which you find yourself, be it religious, economic, social, or political. You will grow in the freedom to be inside or outside all kinds of systems and to move freely between and among them. Together, you and I can be in it and not of it."
"But so many of the people I care about seem to be both in it and of it!" Mack was thinking of his friends, church people who had expressed love to him and his family. He knew they loved Jesus, but were also sold out to religious activity and patriotism.
"Mack, I love them. And you wrongly judge many of them. For those who are both in it and of it, we must find ways to love and serve them, don't you think?" asked Jesus. "Remember, the people who know me are the ones who are free to live and love without any agenda."
"Is that what it means to be a Christian?" It sounded kind of stupid as Mack said it, but it was how he was trying to sum everything up in his mind.
"Who said anything about being a Christian? I'm not a Christian."
The idea struck Mack as odd and unexpected and he couldn't keep himself from grinning. "No, I suppose you aren't."
They arrived at the door of the workshop. Again Jesus stopped. "Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don't vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved."
"Does that mean," asked Mack, "that all roads will lead to you?"
"Not at all," smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. "Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you."
(Selections taken from pages 180-82)

The Shack is certainly evangelical. For example, there is a clear and robust theory of substitutionary atonement. And yet in the above dialog, there is something that is potentially very non-evangelical: accepting the validity of other religious perspectives. This is not just an "anything goes approach," as the above makes clear. And yet there is a tone of inclusiveness that is rare amongst evangelicals.

My initial sense was, "Cool! Young is saying that Jesus is working among non-Christians." That is, I was really really fascinated that Young would suggest that Jesus would be at work among Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, etc. If one could see the values and spirit of the Kingdom being embodied, then this was the activity of Jesus.

And yet Young's language is a bit ambiguous. His Jesus says that he has followers who were Buddhists and Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, etc. If he would have used the present tense, are, then I think that the language would have been more clearly an inclusive stance: "my followers are Buddhists and Mormons, Baptists or Muslims..."

I wonder if Young has ever been questioned on this point. I know that he has taken a good deal of heat from the conservative sector of evangelicalism.

But The Shack has been extremely popular among evangelicals, primarily (I would suggest) because it loosens up the rigid "us versus them" spirit that has dominated evangelicalsim in the past. And this, I think, can only be a good thing. I think many evangelicals are taught that all other perspectives and religions are condemned (a peculiar interpretation of John 14:6), and that if we entertain any other idea then we are on a road to pure relativism and "anything goes!". What is often ignored in these discussions is that the Gospel is primarily about reconciliation. There is the indication that the reconciliation (apokatallasso) is for all (Colossians 1:20), to unite (anakephalaio) all (Ephesians 1:10), in Christ.

I'm not saying that the New Testament itself teaches inclusivism, but I do think that there is enough there to point us in that direction. There is certainly enough evidence in the New Testament and the Gospels to allow evangelicals to take seriously the idea that Jesus and the message of the Gospel may be quite active in non-Christian settings and in places in the world where the name "Jesus" is unknown. This is because the message and power of the Gospel is based on something greater than any particular religion or institution. And this is what Young brings out very clearly in The Shack.

Once we recognize that the power of the Gospel transcends institution/religion and is much deeper to the core of the human soul than a creed or dogma could ever be, then the theological door is wide open to consider that the power of the Gospel is alive and active within non-Christian settings.

In other words, maybe there's room in the shack for you.

Or perhaps you are already in the shack, and you just don't know it.

Or perhaps if we all recognize that we are in the same shack, then we can start to engage in a new way the Gospel's vision for reconciliation, transformation, and redemption.