“Every man has forgotten who he is…”

I’ve been meaning to read G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy for a while now, and finally started it a couple months ago after a friend, Dave Heller, told me he was in the middle of it and loving it. I’m making my way through it slowly, since it is the kind of book that demands you take time to soak in the ideas presented. Seeing as today is Chesterton’s birthday, I thought I’d post my favorite excerpt so far, from the chapter The Ethics of Elfland (emphasis added).

This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct like astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we need only tales. Mere life is interestingly enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales – because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. I have said that this is wholly reasonable and even agnostic. And, indeed, on this point I am all for the higher agnosticism; its better name is Ignorance. We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that, for certain dead levels of our life, we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant, we remember that we forget.

Also, check out Jeffrey’s blog for some of his favorite Chesterton quotes.

New book from Matthew Paul Turner

Hokey Pokey

Matthew Paul Turner’s newest book, Hokey Pokey – Curious People Finding What Life’s All About, is fortunately not about five steps to finding your purpose, as one might at first assume. On the back cover, beneath the J.R.R. Tolkien quote, “not all who wander are lost,” the summary ends with this statement: “So even if you haven’t arrived, the journey there can be a trip. Which just may be what it’s all about.” Instead of trying to tell us what we need to do to find God’s purpose for our lives, Matthew decided to interview a variety of people in different walks and stages of life and share their stories interwoven with slices of his own.

When I’ve talked with others about this book in the last five or six weeks since I read it, I find myself returning to a story Matthew tells about a university student who approached him after the final session of a three day event where he was the guest speaker. The student told Matthew a little about himself, and then said, “I pretty much lived your life except I’m not in the same place ten years later.” He asked Matthew how he had gotten free, how he was able to get beyond depending on what other people expected him to think about God to figuring things out for himself. He felt like he was suffocating, needing to ask questions but not allowed to voice any struggles or doubts. Matthew writes:

“I knew exactly what he was talking about. I knew his struggle all too well. He didn’t feel like he had the freedom to ask questions, to doubt, to be frustrated about his way of life. Like so many of those from the twenty-first century who have asked evangelicalism into their hearts, Zack had gotten to a place where he felt duped. For almost twenty years he’d invested his heart and soul into a way of living that made a lot of big promises. He was promised that God’s will would be clear. He was promised that his life would eventually fall into place if he learned how to obey. The processes that he followed included lots of things practical Christians do: praying three times a day, reading his Bible, working up a good amount of honesty with an accountability partner. But even though he followed all of the rules, he still felt lost. I know a lot of people whose stories are similar to Zack’s.”

Later on in the same chapter, Free to Dance, Matthew recounts a conversation that took place between two guys on a Sunday evening a couple years ago in St. Louis, friends discussing faith, belief, and asking questions. Sometimes hearing the stories of others deciding to be honest with each other, of not being afraid to ask questions or let others know what they are really thinking, is just the encouragement we need to do the same.

Toward the end of the book, Matthew writes more about our need to have other people whom we know and who know us.

“I learn a lot by watching my friends experience change. Sometimes their experiences are informative, while other times they are entertaining – kind of like watching a comedy. I like listening in when they’re getting honest about what part of the change they’re struggling through. And it’s not all about just hearing about their screwups. I mean, while I’ve always heard that I should do my best to learn from other people’s stupidity, my quest to be nosey is much deeper than just avoiding my friends’ mistakes. I want to hear other people’s stories so I have an idea about how life will be down the road. What are their biggest frustrations? What do they value most? Whom should I talk to about creating a will? Those are the things that I want to know.”

I think this book is worth reading because, as I said at the beginning of my review, Matthew doesn’t try to give us a five-step plan for figuring out our purpose in life. Instead, he encourages us to listen to our stories and try to follow God in little ways in our everyday life. In the penultimate chapter, Matthew asks us what would happen if we made that our modus operandi.

“Okay, so what would happen if we began listening to these little truths that come our way? What if we listened to the stories that happen in our lives? What if we began to let the stories teach us something about ourselves? In my personal life, I have experienced over and over again moments when I’m convinced that God is speaking to me within my own personal narrative. It isn’t always through a burning-bush type of sign; sometimes it’s just an experience that pushed me toward the curious path I am called to experience.”

Hokey Pokey: Curious People Finding What Life’s All About is a fairly quick read because of Matthew’s conversational writing style, coming in at just over two hundred pages. You can buy it from his (newly re-designed) website or from Amazon.com. And his blog, Jesus Needs New PR, is here.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Matthew is a good friend of mine, so I don’t claim to be impartial in my review.)

Quote of the week: Truthful Conversation

In the acknowledgments at the beginning of his book The Gospel According To America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea, David Dark thanks a group of friends “for exemplifying the kind of conversation that makes disagreement a breakthrough rather than an awkward ending.” A couple pages later, in the chapter before Chapter 1, Instead of an Introduction, David writes, “Without a costly commitment to candor among family and potential friends, the possibility of truthful conversation (a pre-requisite for the formation of more perfect unions) begins to tragically diminish, and responsible speech that communicates what we’re actually thinking and believing becomes a lost art.”

Festival of Faith and Writing – Jeffrey Overstreet – “Through a Screen Darkly”

(Sorry for the delay in blogging the rest of my notes from the Festival. I’ll try to get the last four or five posts up sometime in the next week or two.)

Jeffrey’s second session was Through a Screen Darkly: A Memoir of Gradual Bedazzlement and Dangerous Moviegoing. Even if Jeffrey’s sessions had not been one of the reasons why I wanted to attend the Festival this year, I would have been at this session because the description in the program included a Buechner quote – “Frederick Buechner says, “If we are to love our neighbors, we must first see our neighbors with our imagination as well as our eyes. That is to say, like artists.” In a tour of movies from around the world, Overstreet examines the ways in which art – however simple, dark, or strange – can give us new perspectives and transforming encounters with beauty and truth.”

A lot of what he talked about can be found in his book, Through a Screen Darkly – Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies, that I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet. And his blog, the Looking Closer Journal, can be found here.

My favorite quote of the session was Jeffrey’s explanation that, “Art speaks about things that we cannot reduce to paraphrase.”

He described his work writing reviews for Christianity Today, saying, “At Christianity Today, we have a group of critics who have signed up to regularly receive boatloads of hate mail.” Jeffrey and others were trying to offer alternatives to the existing websites that declared that they alone offered The Christian Reaction to a movie. “There are a lot of websites already out there that say why you can’t watch certain movies.” In a comment that elicited knowing laughter, referring to the type of movie reviewer who determines the appropriateness of a film by counting swear words and body parts, Jeffrey said, “My sexual education occurred by reading Christian film reviews.”

He said that movies like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are popular, that we like seeing that kind of story played out on the big screen because, “the way myth works is to appeal to our longing for something more, to tell us that there is hope after death.”

Describing the evolution of his film-watching habits, he told us about seeing Chariots of Fire for the first time. “Chariots of Fire showed us what we want to see – A Christian as the central character who gets to preach the gospel to the masses and wins the race. That’s what we want to see, Christians as the ideal.” As the range of films he has appreciated has grown, he realized that, “sometimes we learn about glory by its absence.” And sometimes movies can even wake us up by showing us evil. “[The movie] Closer is like the billboard I see on my way to work every day with the cancer-eaten lung and the cigarette. Some people need to see it.”

“Eternity is written in the hearts of saints and fools,” quoted Jeffrey, and then continued, saying, “It’s in their movies too.”

He talked about the ending of Match Point, one of my favorite movies and the basis of an essay I wrote back in November, Why I Believe in God. And showing us why superficial dismissals of movies are never a good idea, he quoted part of this paragraph from the introduction to Roger Ebert’s book Awake in the Dark (emphasis added): “A movie is not good because it arrives at conclusions you share, or bad because it does not. A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it: about the way it considers its subject matter, and about how its real subject may be quite different from the one it seems to provide.”

At the start of the festival, on Thursday evening, while having dinner with Jeffrey and another acquaintance from artsandfaith.com, I told Jeffrey I was looking forward to both his sessions. He asked why I was going to be at the one on film, since I’d already heard pretty much everything he was going to say, and I replied that I would be there in part because I enjoy seeing other’s reactions, especially when it is to something I know is coming up. For instance, Jeffrey told one story at both lectures that I love and that got a similar reaction both times. Here’s how he recounts it in his essay The Eagles Are Coming: “It can be discomforting to find glimmers of hope in the world outside of the church. After writing about the themes of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, I received a letter from a woman who condemned fairy tales, calling them invitations into witchcraft and occultism: “If you think anything meaningful can be conveyed by pagan mythology, you’ve just opened Pandora’s Box!” What could I say? She had just found a “pagan myth” useful in conveying her ideas to me.”

Thanks, Jeffrey, for leading many of us into a wider appreciation of movies, for pointing out lessons you’ve learned from seeing beauty, truth, and evil on the big screen and for showing us how to do the same, for reminding us to look for the echoes of eternity in everything we take in.

Unexpected Satire

When I was in Chattanooga a couple weeks ago visiting family, I went downtown on Saturday afternoon with my mom, my sister, and her fiancé to walk around and enjoy the weather. Walking thru Coolidge park, we passed a used book store that I hadn’t noticed before, A Novel Idea, so I ducked in for a couple minutes. I walked out with these books:

  • Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic – Reinhold Niebuhr
  • I’ve heard different passages quoted from this before, so it should be fun to read through.

  • The Cloister Walk– Kathleen Norris
  • I loved hearing Kathleen Norris speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing last month, so I had planned on buying Dakota, her book that I’ve heard talked about most. Since The Cloister Walk was all they had, I went ahead and bought it and was later glad I did when I found out that it has inspired some of Eric Peter’s songs.

  • An Island in the Lake of Fire – Bob Jones University, Fundamentalism & the Separatist movement – Mark Taylor Dalhouse
  • Written by an historian, I was intrigued at this look at my mom’s alma mater, a place where I spent several weeks during my high school years at various music competitions and other events. I bought it because he addresses the well-publicized split between the Joneses and my great grandfather, John R. Rice, over the issue of secondary separation. It looks like it will be an interesting read.

    And lastly,

  • When Skeletons Come out of their Closets! – Eleven greatly used sermons by Dr. John R. Rice
  • I’m trying to build up a collection of my Great Grandfather’s books, so whenever I come across one in a used bookstore I buy it. This one, a collection of his sermons, was first published in 1943. The copy I found is from the fourth printing, in May of 1969, after the first 23,000 copies were gone; I don’t know how many more printings there were of it. I’ve skimmed through it some this week, and in one sermon, America Gets Back Her Scrap Iron (written early in World War II), I came across some unexpected satire that I thought was great:

    How wicked the Japanese are! We sold them millions of pounds of scrap iron with which to make bombs and guns and ammunition and tanks and warships; but we had a clear understanding that they were to kill helpless Chinese with them. And now, after murdering something over a million Chinese, mostly innocent non-combatants, women and children who could not help themselves nor fight back, Japan has now begun to kill Americans with our own scrap iron! How wicked, how sinful are the Japanese, to kill armed American soldiers and sailors, instead of killing helpless Chinese as the understanding was when we sold them the scrap iron along with the airplanes, the oil and some of the bombs to do it with!

    Now, of course, the rest of the chapter contains exactly what I expected, like this line, “France can trace her startling, sudden fall largely to an alcoholized army and a wine-sodden people. Shall America get by with the same sin?”

    And a couple more excerpts, typical of other things I’ve read from him before:

    Every Christian must be a Christian patriot for God and country. I believe we should back up our government in the war with our earnest efforts, our money, our toil, our prayers, and if necessary, with our lives. The decadent pacifism of the modernist, of the pink professors, is not the Christian attitude of Bible Christians.

    No doubt the curse of God on our country, the war and all the dangers we face, are largely because of the great majority of people who do not know God, who never pray earnestly in Christ’s name, who do not love the Lord Jesus, who will not have Him as Lord. Every lost sinner is a Christ-rejector, an alien from God, a child of wrath, following his father, the devil. And on such a nation as ours, composed principally of Christ-rejecting sinners, God must bring judgment if we do not repent!

    Now if I can just find enough time to read all these…

    You Against You – Eric Peters

    This past Friday, I drove over to Murfreesboro to hear a friend of mine, Eric Peters, play a concert. He has a song called Save Something For Grace that I love. In the first verse, he sings, “midnight / at the stroke of noon / when the lights go down / and it’s you against you / quiet eyes in a blaze of shame / like a beast of burden / you could never tame // we try to be holy without being human first.” I wrote a review of the concert yesterday for Andrew over at the Rabbit Room, and quoted some more lyrics from that song. Check it out here.

    Flannery O’Connor on Faith

    Re-reading some old Rabbit Room posts, I came across this Flannery O’Connor quote in the comments section of a post about one of her books that reminded me of one of my posts from a while back, Weak and full of holes, where I quoted some thoughts from Frederick Buechner, Kevin Twit, and Philip Yancey on faith.

    I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as a process by which faith is deepended. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is a cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it , keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God. Don’t expect faith to clear everything up for you. Faith is trust, not certainty.

    ~ Flannery O’Connor

    Revival: A Monologue

    How I Got Saved, Got Lost, and Failed to Overthrow the Imperialist Bourgeoisie is the subtitle of the monologue my uncle has been performing in Seattle the last couple of weekends, based on his upcoming book, Revival: A Memoir. This weekend is his last performance in this run, at the Capital Hill Arts Center in Seattle.

    The flyer he sent me about it had this teaser: Andrew Himes traveled a postmodern trajectory through fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Maoism, and fundamentalist Microsoft. Along the way, he assaulted an army of Nazi cows, rebelled against a granddad who helped invent the Religious Right, got himself arrested for illegal use of a bullhorn, and had a near-death experience aboard a bright green Kawasaki. He lived to tell the tale in this extemporaneous live performance.

    For a small taste of what you’ll experience if you can make one of the performances, check out this recording from a panel he was on with Rob Bell during the Seeds of Compasssion event, “Andy Himes – Missionary to Evangelicals”.

    The Seattle Times had a write up of his performance last week, “Revival!”: a fundamentalist upbringing shapes a seeker of truth. Here are a couple excerpts:

    Andrew Himes is the brother, nephew, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist preachers.

    That Himes did not grow up to be a Baptist preacher himself may or may not be surprising. Same goes for the fact that as a young man, he rejected the fundamentalism of his grandfather, John R. Rice, a prominent evangelist and co-founder of the Religious Right in America.

    What is surprising is that Himes found a way to embrace his upbringing while rejecting its dogmatism and forging his own identity.

    Now, as a Seattleite of deep social conscience (he’s the executive director of the Voices in Wartime Education Project), Himes is sharing his journey of spiritual rebirth in the form of “Revival!,” a memoir-as-monologue that bridges the gaps between his youthful Christianity, his young-adult passion for Maoist revolution and his maturity as a freethinking seeker of truth.

    With subtle humor and a keen sense of irony, Himes relates a compelling chronology — accompanied by family photos, heirlooms and cheesy clips from an early-’70s fundamentalist film — that includes close encounters with Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones University and a genuinely terrifying concept of eternity.

    The website for the Capital Hill Arts Center includes an interview with Andy where he is asked, “In composing Revival!, and addressing racism and social ills in America, what have been your greatest challenges?” He answered, “To tell the truth, as far as I am able, no matter where it takes me, and even when the truth reveals what a total and incomprehensible idiot I am. To express compassion and generosity of spirit toward people who terrify, annoy, offend, and crazify me. To learn how to stop preaching at others and just try to tell a damn good story.”

    I love the excerpts I’ve heard so far from his monologue, and the different drafts of his memoir that I’ve read, so if you’re anywhere near where he will be performing I highly recommend checking it out. His blog is at andrewhimes.net if you want to find out more about it.

    Frederick Buechner on Sunsets and Silence

    As evidenced by some of my recent posts, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that we make ourselves known to each other and the ways that we try to hide who we really are, sometimes without even realizing it. Discussing with a friend this week the pitfalls and advantages of different methods of communication (e-mail, face-to-face, etc.), I thought of a story Frederick Buechner tells about a sunset. Found in Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner, this was one of the first things I read by Buechner and it was what turned me into a fan.

    Late one winter afternoon as I was walking to a class that I had to teach, I noticed the beginnings of what promised to be one of the great local sunsets. There was just the right kind of clouds and the sky was starting to burn and the bare trees were black as soot against it. When I got to the classroom, the lights were all on, of course, and the students were chattering, and I was just about to start things off when I thought of the sunset going on out there in the winter dusk, and on impulse, without warning, I snapped off the classroom lights. I am not sure that I ever had a happier impulse. The room faced west so as soon as it went dark, everything disappeared except what we could see through the windows, and there it was – the entire sky on fire by then, like the end of the world or the beginning of the world. You might think that somebody would have said something. Teachers do not usually plunged their students into that kind of darkness, and you might have expected a wisecrack or two or at least the creaking of chairs as people turned around to see if the old bird had finally lost his mind. But the astonishing thing was that the silence was as complete as you can get it in a room full of people, and we all sat there unmoving for as long as it took the extraordinary spectacle to fade slowly away.

    For over twenty minutes nobody spoke a word. Nobody did anything. We just sat there in the near-dark and watched one day of our lives come to an end, and it is no immodesty to say that it was a great class because my only contribution was to snap off the lights and then hold my tongue. And I am not being sentimental about sunsets when I say that it was a great class because in a way the sunset was the least of it. What was great was the unbusy-ness of it. It was taking unlabeled, unallotted time just to look with maybe more than our eyes at what was wonderfully there to be looked at without any obligation to think any constructive thoughts about it or turn it to any useful purpose later, without any weapon at hand in the dark to kill the time it took. It was the sense too that we were not just ourselves individually looking out at the winter sky but that we were in some way also each other looking out at it. We were bound together there simply by the fact of our being human, by our splendid insignificance in face of what was going on out there through the window, and by our curious significance in face of what was going on in there in that classroom. The way this world works, people are very apt to use the words they speak not so much as a way of revealing but, rather, as a way of concealing who they really are and what they really think, and that is why more than a few moments of silence with people we do not know well are apt to make us so tense and uneasy. Stripped of our verbal camouflage, we feel unarmed against the world and vulnerable, so we start babbling about anything just to keep the silence at bay. But if we can bear to let it be, silence, of course, can be communion at a very deep level indeed, and that half hour of silence was precisely that, and perhaps that was the greatest part of it all. (emphasis added)

    How to write good satire

    Okay, I’ve said before that it is hard for me to write satire because I read stuff in papers like The Sword of the Lord and The Biblical Evangelist that are exactly what I would write, except they go even farther than I would go. Oh yeah, and they’re not satire.

    A friend of mine, Matthew, just sent me a link to an article that includes the kind of quote they would print, the kind of thing I wouldn’t believe if he made it up. He blogged about it here. And as a side note, if you do want to read good satire, pick up Matthew’s book The Christian Culture Survival Guide (on sale right now from Relevant Books for only $4!). Hilarious.