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 The Prophetic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen

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

“…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 “…we grapple with redemption’s fable.”

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

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 The Sword of the Lord

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 Why I read Frederick Buechner

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 Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Buechner’s Magic Kingdom

I finished reading Frederick Buechner’s The Eyes of the Heart: a memoir of the lost and found last week, after starting it two years ago. It didn’t take that long to read because of the length; it’s only 180 pages. Rather, every time I picked it up, I couldn’t help but start back at chapter two once again, with its touching account of his lifelong friendship with the poet Jimmy Merrill. In their early 20’s, Buechner and Merrill shared a house for a summer on a small island off the coast of Maine, where they both worked on their first books. Buechner, writing these words fifty plus years after the events described therein, describes beautifully the process of growing up, of finding out who you are.

Looking back, I think I see now how Jimmy and I were not much better than my characters at communicating with each other the innermost truth of who we were, not, I think, because it was a truth that either of us shied away from sharing-what made us such fast friends was that there was no topic we shied away from-but because we were only beginning to glimpse it ourselves. The selves we were beginning to grow into that summer were still in the shadowy wings awaiting their entrance cues… In the meantime we went on being the only selves we knew how to be just then[.]

Finally, though, I kept reading past the second chapter, and found a lovely passage in chapter three where he describes his library and some of his favorite books. Continue reading Buechner’s Magic Kingdom

“I write to change my own mind”

I came across an interview this week with Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review in which she talks a good bit about her writing process, and the answers she gives are very close to the way I would answer those questions. It’s one reason I find it worth my time to read interviews with authors whose work I value, to see how they are able to put into words the kind of things that I, more often than not, am also trying to sort through. Upon being asked if writing came easily to her, Robinson answered, “The difficulty of it cannot be overstated. But at its best, it involves a state of concentration that is a satisfying experience, no matter how difficult or frustrating. The sense of being focused like that is a marvelous feeling.”

Although she is probably best known for her fiction, she has several published collections of essays, and gave this answer when asked why she writes essays: Continue reading “I write to change my own mind”

The Spiritual Strenuousness of Silence

Last weekend I joined some family members for a camping trip to Skull Island, a spot about thirty minutes outside of Chattanooga we used to go to at least once or twice a year for a good part of my childhood, all five of us kids and the parents packing like sardines into our big dome tent until my brothers and I came into possession of little one-man G.I. Joe themed pup tents. Instead of spending the weekend fishing, swimming, and biking around the small island, the way I filled my days there growing up, the majority of the weekend was taken up with reading and sitting in silent reflection under the full moon, staring into the fire or off across the water, the lights from the nearby nuclear power plant lighting up the northern sky. That is, during those times when the silence wasn’t shattered by the loud country music or college football games blaring from the car stereos of the rednecks occupying the campsite at the center of the island – and I use the term “redneck” only because of the large rebel flag posted outside their tent with the word “REDNECK” superimposed in big white letters over the center of the flag, next to the confederate flag unadorned with redundant descriptors. Continue reading The Spiritual Strenuousness of Silence