Category Archives: Books

The Prophetic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen

The Art House America blog just published an essay I wrote on The Prophetic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen, my attempt to treat Walter Brueggemann and Wendell Berry as conversation partners with Bruce Springsteen’s newest album.

The first time I heard Wrecking Ball, the new record from Bruce Springsteen, I was driving through the middle of Kentucky on winding country roads, windows down, stereo cranked all the way up, wind whistling through my hair. I was on my way to the Abbey of Gethsemani — where Thomas Merton lived for most of his life — two days after my 30th birthday, looking forward to the time away to read, write, and reflect. With books by Merton (a first-edition copy of his memoir, Seven Storey Mountain, loaned to me by my friend Ian), Walter Brueggemann, and Wendell Berry in my bag as companions for the weekend, I found myself listening to Springsteen’s lyrics through the lens of Brueggemann’s and Berry’s words.

Read the rest here.

And here are a couple of additional comments, my footnotes to the essay, if you will. Continue reading

Growing Old: Hope, Samuel Beckett, and Krapp’s Last Tape

On a trip to New York City this past December, a trip that had as its genesis a desire to see Rob Mathes’ annual Christmas concert in person (after being introduced to Rob’s music via a DVD of the Christmas show on Mike Card’s bus eight or so years ago), I spent some time with my friends Alissa and Tom. When I first let them know I would be in town, Alissa told me they had tickets one night I would be there to see John Hurt perform Samuel Beckett’s one-man play, Krapp’s Last Tape, at a small theater in Brooklyn. When I found there were still tickets available I quickly purchased one, and set about doing some research on the play, including reading the script after I found it online, having decided to do the same kind of prep work I normally do before going to the symphony every other week.

According to one synopsis: “In Krapp’s Last Tape, which was written in English in 1958, an old man reviews his life and assesses his predicament. We learn about him not from the 69-year-old man on stage, but from his 39-year-old self on the tape he chooses to listen to. On the ‘awful occasion’ of his birthday, Krapp was then and is now in the habit of reviewing the past year and ‘separating the grain from the husks’. He isolates memories of value, fertility and nourishment to set against creeping death ‘when all my dust has settled’.” Continue reading

“…we grapple with redemption’s fable.”

I’ll break my unintentional blog silence here, as 2012 appears on the horizon, to share a poem from the Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail, someone whose words have been a comfort and challenge to me over the last year, a poet who helps remind me of both the worth and the power of words. What I love, perhaps most of all, about Micheal’s poetry, is the way he explores the various stages of a life, whether it is falling in love for the first time, or growing old, or searching for home. This poem comes from his book The Chosen Garden (1990), section IV, Turns and Returns – a section which also includes one of my favorites (and most quoted) of his, Those We Follow, a poem I quoted in an article I wrote for the Art House America blog back in August about Image Journal’s Glen Workshop. History is the first poem in this grouping, following this epigraph from Edwin Muir: Continue reading

Why I Didn’t Attend Falwell’s Liberty University (it was too liberal)

This post first appeared over at Jesus Needs New PR a couple weeks ago.

In January of 2007, Kevin Roose walked on to the campus of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, ready to join 25,000 other students for the start of the spring semester. But there was one thing that set Kevin apart from his classmates, something his new friends wouldn’t know about until after he left Liberty at the end of the semester. Kevin was a transfer student from Brown University, a school every bit as secular as Liberty was religious, and had decided to spend his “semester abroad” in Lynchburg, VA, instead of England or Italy. After spending a couple days on the campus of Liberty several months earlier, on a research trip with an author he was working for, he had realized he didn’t know anything, really, about evangelical Christians, and found that trying to carry on a conversations with “them,” even with his peers, was like trying to communicate with someone from a completely different culture, someone who didn’t even speak the same language. He wanted to get past the stereotypes, beyond what the culture wars tell us about who our enemies are, and so decided to spend a semester at an Evangelical university, with plans to write a book about his experience. The decision to attend Liberty, then, was an easy one: he couldn’t imagine a more conservative institution, and he wanted to get the full immersion experience.

When I read The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, Kevin’s story of his time at Liberty, just after it was published a couple years ago, the first thing that struck me was how different our stories were. While Kevin chose Liberty because of how conservative and extreme he thought it was, I chose not to attend Liberty for the exact opposite reason. Continue reading

The Sword of the Lord

This was also posted at Jesus Needs New PR

It is difficult, if not impossible, to know who you are without knowing where you came from, without knowing the history of your people, your place. For me, that story revolves around my great grandfather.

My mother’s grandfather, John R. Rice, was an Independent Baptist preacher and evangelist. Although he died fifteen months before I was born, his shadow loomed large over my childhood. My identity came from him, and he was, first and foremost, a Fundamentalist. From a sermon preached in 1928, early in his ministry, “Why I Am a Big F Fundamentalist,” to one of his last books, published in 1975, just five years before his death, “I Am a Fundamentalist,” that remained his most important identifier. With two hundred books and pamphlets to his credit (more than sixty million copies in print) and a biweekly newspaper he edited, the Sword of the Lord, that had a circulation topping out at over three hundred thousand, he was sometimes called “America’s Mightiest Pen.” His role as a principle player in two of the defining moments of 20th century American Fundamentalism – the 1957 split with Billy Graham over his ecumenical New York crusade, the end of a long friendship between the two, and the very public disagreement with Bob Jones, Jr., over the issue of secondary separation in the mid 70’s – cemented his role as an elder statesman of Fundamentalism. At his funeral service, one mentoree of his, Jerry Falwell, called his death the “passing of an era…He was God’s man for the hour. I looked on him as the guardian of fundamentalist truth for this generation. More than any other person, he was the most trusted man in fundamentalism…” Continue reading

Why I read Frederick Buechner

This was originally posted at My Friend Amy’s blog as part of her “Frederick Buechner week.”

When it came time to critique the piece I was workshopping at a writing class I took part in the end of last summer, Lauren Winner, the esteemed leader of our class, offered as one of her critiques that she thought I quoted Frederick Buechner too many times. When I attempted to explain that my quotations of Buechner were there because reading his books had helped me arrive at where I stand today, but that I was sure later drafts of the piece would rely less on Buechner’s words as I found my own, Lauren interrupted me, saying, “then write that. Write about how reading Buechner helped you become who you are today. That I would be interested in reading.”

So here it is: my attempt to explain something of what the writings of Frederick Buechner have meant to me. I have said elsewhere, and readily repeat it here, that I count myself among those are are still able to call themselves Christian, at least in part, because of the work of Buechner. When the voices of my fundamentalist religious upbringing threaten to drown out everything else, I have only to read something from Buechner to remember, once again, that maybe, just maybe, there is something to this whole thing. Continue reading

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

The first book I ever read about writing was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I was in high school, just beginning to realize that writing was something I wanted my future self to do, and so I asked my aunt and uncle, both published authors, what books on the craft of writing they would recommend. Besides Bird by Bird, the other book they recommended was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and both of them proved to be tremendously helpful. I was prompted to pick up Bird by Bird again last night after a writer friend mentioned it in her e-mail, and read the first chapter before I went to bed. After coffee with my friend Matthew Paul Turner this morning where it came up again, I read another twenty pages over lunch, and plan to read the rest of it this week.

“Becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader,” she writes near the beginning of the book, “and that is the real payoff.” The act of putting the words down on the page is the part we should value, the reason why we do it, she repeats over and over, not the end goal of possibly being published. Continue reading