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.
A LOVE SUPREME
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
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.)
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
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
"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 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."
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
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
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
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)
“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.