Category Archives: Books

At the risk of self-discovery…

I recently read Anne Lamott’s novel “Crooked Little Heart”, and as I was finishing it I came to the conclusion that all of her writing could be summed up in this way: We are messed up people, living in a messed up world. We screw up all the time, but some of us are able to hide it better than others. And life is still beautiful. We are selfish, caring only about ourselves and our needs. We do whatever it takes to try and make ourselves comfortable, no matter who is hurt by it. We go to great lengths to protect our illusions of perfection. But every once in a while we help a friend, we allow ourselves to be inconvenienced, we put aside our rights. And life is beautiful.

In today’s culture, it is impolite to tell someone if they are doing something wrong. We avoid straight talk at all costs; we even choose our churches by looking for masturbatory teaching. We are afraid to show others who we really are, in part, on the chance that they won’t like us any more or want to be around us. But I think Sara Groves is getting at something in the chorus of her song “Every Minute” when she sings “And at the risk of wearing out my welcome / At the risk of self-discovery / I’ll take every moment / And every minute that you’ll give me”. We are more afraid that we will discover ourselves than we are that others will know who we are. Why else are we afraid of silence? Why else do we surround ourselves with music, T.V., and the radio every minute of the day? If we search our hearts, what will we find?

We need to remember that life is lived in community and growth comes through sharing. In Sara’s song “All Right Here”, she sings “Every heart has so much history / It’s my favorite place to start / Sit down a while and share your narrative with me / I’m not afraid of who you are // I’m all here, and you’re all there / Some of this is unique, and some of it we share / Add it up and start from there / Well, it’s all right here”.

So we have a choice to make. Will we admit that we are not perfect and let others share in this beautiful mess of a life that we live? Will we allow ourselves to love, even though we know it could end in hurt? Or will we pretend that life is perfect, that we have it all together and everything is great, that we need no one else?

Sara Groves ~ Every Minute

I am long on staying
I am slow to leave
Especially when it comes to you my friend
You have taught me slow down
And to prop up my feet
It’s the fine art of being who I am

And I can’t figure out
Why you want me around
I’m not the smartest person I have ever met
But somehow that doesn’t matter
No it never really mattered to you at all

And at the risk of wearing out my welcome
At the risk of self-discovery
I’ll take every moment
And every minute that you’ll give me

And I can think of time when families all lived together
Four generations in one house
And the table was full of good food
And friends and neighbors
That’s not how we like it now

Cause if you sit at home you’re a loser
Couldn’t you find anything better to do
Well no I couldn’t think of one thing
I would rather waste my time on than sitting here with you

And at the risk of wearing out my welcome
At the risk of self-discovery
I’ll take every moment
And every minute that you’ll give me

And I wish all the people I love the most
Could gather in one place
And know each other and love each other well

And I wish we could all go camping
And lay beneath the stars
And have nothing to do and stories to tell
We’d sit around the campfire
And we’d make each other laugh remembering when
You’re the first one I’m inviting
Always know that you’re my friend

And at the risk of wearing out my welcome
At the risk of self-discovery
I’ll take every moment
And every minute that you’ll give me
Every moment and every minute that you’ll give me

Why I Don’t Read Christian Fiction

Here is another excerpt from the Stephen King book I read recently, On Writing.

In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.
You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer—my answer, anyway—is nowhere. I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable e precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can—I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). If you can see things going this way (or at least try to), we can work together comfortably. If on the other hand, you decide I’m crazy, that’s fine. You won’t be the first.

When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that that was fine, so long as he believed that I believed it. And I do. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or GameBoys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.
No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.

Now contrast that to christian fiction. Most of it is written with one specific purpose in mind, one ‘virtue’ or ‘promise’ they want to emphasize. And so it ends up being trite and clichéd. Here is an example:

Guy and girl fall in love, get married, have two kids. After getting bored with his wife, the husband decides to have an affair with one of his college students. He leaves his wife and moves in with college student. The wife suddenly reconnects with her highschool boyfriend, and finds out that the reason she left him all those years ago, thinking he had another girlfriend, was just a misunderstanding. So there was no reason for them to have split up, especially since he’s the one she’s really loved all this time. They become emotionally involved, but don’t sleep together (because she’s the ‘good guy’ in this story). After the girl decides not to pursue her old boyfriend anymore, she starts praying for her husband to come back. So, after getting bored with his affair, he asks her to take him back. She does, albeit a little reluctantly because she has realized she really loves the other guy more. They try to work things out, but it’s hard going. Then one day, the husband suddenly remembers that he left some things over at his girlfriend’s apartment that he needs back, so he heads over there. It just so happens that his girlfriend’s former boyfriend was jealous of him sleeping with her, and did not know yet that they had broken things off. So when the professor goes to the apartment to get his things, the jilted lover runs up behind him and fires several shots, killing him. So what happens next? Of course the bereaved wife now needs someone to comfort her; how convenient that her highschool boyfriend has moved back to town and is more than willing to step up. The end result is that she gets to marry the guy she really loved all along, and they live happily ever after. And the clincher? The reason everything worked out was because she did things in God’s timing and prayed about everything. So He, of course wanting her to be happy, worked things out for her.

And that is why I don’t read ‘christian’ fiction.

This plot refers to the Karen Kingsbury / Gary Smalley effort “Redemption Series”, a part of Kingsbury’s trademarked (yes, I did say trademarked) “Life Changing Fiction” brand.

The Divine Peppermint Stick

I reread Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 last week, the first time I’ve read it in about ten years. It’s hard to believe that it was written in 1953, so accurately does Bradbury describe today’s culture.

For instance, when Faber is given a Bible by Montag, the central character, he says:

“It’s been a long time. I’m not a religious man. But it’s been a long time.” Faber turned the pages, stopping here and there to read. “It’s as good as I remember. Lord how they’ve changed it in our ‘parlors’ these days. Christ is one of the ‘family’ now. I often wonder if God recognizes His own son the way we’ve dressed him up, or is it dressed him down? He’s a regular peppermint stick now, all sugar-crystal and saccharine when he isn’t making veiled references to certain commercial products that every worshiper absolutely needs.”

N. T. Wright on Da Vinci Code

N. T. Wright, an Anglican Bishop and a leading British New Testament scholar, for whom I have a lot of respect, gave a lecture last year at Seattle Pacific University entitled Decoding the Da Vinci Code. I just came across a transcript of it recently, and found his introduction interesting. He explores the reasons as to why people are so susceptible to believing stories like Da Vinci Code and Left Behind, articulating it much better than I have.

Telling Fact from Fiction
It is a well-known feature of today’s culture that some people can’t tell fact from fiction. Stories abound of people who believe the characters in soap operas to be real, including tales of thousands of baby clothes being sent to radio stations after one of the fictitious characters has given birth, and of actors being attacked in the street by people angry about the bad behavior of their screen character. Within a would-be Christian subculture the same thing becomes sinister, as when millions who read the Left Behind series really do believe not only in the “rapture” as a central element of their theology but in the sociopolitical ideologies powerfully reinforced by that series. In a sense, Dan Brown represents the mirror image of LaHaye and Jenkins, reproducing in fictionalized form some of the myths of the postmodern world as LaHaye and Jenkins reproduce in fictionalized form some of the myths of the fundamentalist right.

You can read his full essay here.

Left Behind: Da Vinci Code

The movie adaptation of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code hits theatres next week, and the buzz surrounding it is increasing. I’m reminded of another fiction series that has received a huge response, Left Behind. They have a numer of things in common.
~ They both take theories that are not well known in the mainstream, and popularize them through fiction.
~ They both elicit strong responses. DVC has been referred to as “blasphemy on steroids”, and Anne Lamott referred to Left Behind as “hard-core right-wing paranoid anti-Semitic homophobic misogynistic propaganda —not to put to fine a point on it.”

One of the main differences between DVC and Left Behind is that the theories advanced in DVC are around 2000 years old, while those behind Left Behind are only around 150 years old.
It would be interesting to see the results of a poll on how many people believe what they read in DVC, and how many believe what is in Left Behind.

Barbara Nicolosi, over at Church of the Masses first proposed the idea of an “othercott” on March 16th. The idea is to see another movie, in this case Over the Hedge instead of DVC. Her idea is gaining momentum, with many in the evangelical and catholic church embracing it. Her blog post was reprinted on Christianity Today’s websites and countless other blogs where it has generated much discussion.

I have a couple of problems with Barb’s suggestion. In the first place, it’s hard to take someone seriously who thinks King Kong was given a lot of publicity to try and distract from “our movie”, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She has proven by now, through her blind and unwavering support for Narnia and her deer-in-the-headlights response to Da Vinci Code, that she isn’t really concerned with offering balanced critiques of art, only with broadcasting her opinion and woe be to those who disagree with her.

Secondly, Barb declares that we vote at the theatres with our money, and if we go see it opening week it will encourage and reward the makers of DVC. Many have said that if you are going to see it, just don’t go opening weekend. The problem with that is if you go see it the second week, that will help them keep it in theatres a third week, and so on. If you wait to buy it on DVD, you are “helping to fund their next blasphemous movie” and still rewarding them. The only logical end to that argument is to go hide in your basement until the whole thing blows over.
I have said in the past that the rhetoric and actions she is using and proposing go against many of her other arguments, but I don’t think you’ll find that true. It seems she changes her philosophy as each new movie comes along.

I would suggest setting up a satirical website at www.othercott.com, but there’s already one there. Except I don’t think they mean it as satire. Check out their page on suggestions page for response to the film. Number 5 is Post a pithy message on your church’s road sign. Some of their suggestions are Da Vinci Code – A Code Without a Clue; The Da Vinci Code: Bigotry Goes Mainstream; and Da Vinci Code– Code Book for Slander.

One of the points DVC brings to attention is the fact of how little most people know about the history of Christianity. If people are spurred into studying church history, researching the canonization of scripture, etc., then a good thing will have come out of this controversy. I hope people would do the same with Left Behind.

The War Prayer

Since today is the National Day of Prayer (read the President’s comments here), I thought I’d post one of my favorite short stories, written by the eminent American author Mark Twain.

The War Prayer by Mark Twain
written approximately 1904-05

Editorial Note: Outraged by American military intervention in the Philippines, Mark Twain wrote this and sent it to Harper’s Bazaar. This women’s magazine rejected it for being too radical, and it wasn’t published until after Mark Twain’s death, when World War I made it even more timely. It appeared in Harper’s Monthly, November 1916.

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came — next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams — visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation

God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest! Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory —
An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued with his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside — which the startled minister did — and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer — the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it — that part which the pastor — and also you in your hearts — fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. the whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory — must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Why Write?

Why do you write? Many of you who read this blog probably also write your own. When someone asks you why, what do you say? If you don’t have an answer, you’d probably be better off wasting your time doing something else.

I blog for a couple of different reasons. One is to become a better writer. Like in many other areas, the only way to improve your writing skills is to write. Ann Lamott says most people are in love with the idea of writing, but not the actual act of writing.

Another reason I blog is to help myself sort through things. Anytime we articulate our arguments and thoughts, their weak spots will be exposed to us. We are less apt to make blanket statements that contain half-truths if we know they will be “in print” where others can read them next week and a year from now. So I write in part to clarify things in my mind, and to give others points to think about and debate. (Of course, nothing substitutes for good face-to-face discussion over a cup of strong black coffee at Rembrant’s or a pint of Guinness at McCreary’s.)

I’m currently reading through Stephen King’s “On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft”, and this paragraph made me stop and think:

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair – the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

I’m not asking you to come reverently or unquestioningly; I’m not asking you to be politically correct or cast aside your sense of humor (please God you have one). This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s not the moral Olympics, and it’s not church. But it’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t, or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.
Wash the car, maybe.

How to interpret the Bible like an Evangelical

NOTE: Before you read this post, I have to warn you that I am a big fan of satire. If you are offended by satirical humor, you will inevitably become upset when reading certain posts. I will not always feel compelled to label posts that contain satire, so keep that in mind. And now, let the fun begin:

Joel Kilpatrick, creator of LarkNews.com, recently wrote a new book, A Field Guide to Evangelicals & Their Habitat.
I bought it soon after it came out a couple weeks ago, and finished it by that evening, all 170 pages. The reason it is so funny is because so much of it is true.

I have written before on why I think the political positions many conservative evangelicals take is contra-Biblical, so I especially enjoyed this section on Biblical interpretation. The key to trying to defend a political position you endorse by using scripture is really very simple; you just have to know how to read it the right way. For example:

Here is how evangelicals interpret Bible passages to arrive at their political positions:

This passage: “Remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10)
really means: Remember how lazy the poor are and thank God you’re not on welfare like them.

This passage: “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jesus in John 18:36)
really means: But for now, make sure you keep control of the White House and Congress.

This passage: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Jesus in Matthew 22:21)
really means: Only pay taxes on money you can’t hide from the IRS.

This passage: “Thou shalt not kill” (God in Exodus 20:13)
really means: Kill only those who deserve it—like death row inmates, abortion doctors, sworn enemies of the United States, and the French, when possible.

This passage: “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him” (God in Exodus 22:21)
really means: Vote against government benefits for illegals.

This passage: “The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and care for it” (Genesis 2:15)
really means: Don’t worry about the environment because when Jesus comes back he’ll destroy the earth anyway.

Thanks to Shaun for bringing this book to my attention.

Blue Like Jazz

I just got back from a concert featuring the Nashville Jazz Orchestra and the Blair Big Band. The NJO played their first annual “Writers Night”, featuring arrangements and compositions written by Nashville writers. I was reminded again why I love big band music.

As I was listening to the concert, I was reminded of the forward to Donald Miller’s second book, Blue Like Jazz – Nonreligious thoughts on Christian Spirituality:

I never liked Jazz music because Jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.
After that I liked jazz music.
Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.

I first saw a copy of this book in late 2003, a couple months after it had been published. I was at a friend’s birthday party and saw someone take this book out of their briefcase while they tried to locate something. When I saw the title, I picked it up, read the forward, and then proceeded to read as much as I could before the party was over.

I now have all of Don’s books (Prayer and the Art of Volkswagon Maintenance, Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What, Through Painted Deserts (new edition of his first book), and To Own a Dragon), and like his writing more with each book.

His newest book, To Own a Dragon: Reflections On Growing Up Without A Father, is based partly upon the premise that good fathers are sighted about as frequently as fire breathing dragons, a fact to which I can attest.
The book reads a little like a series of essays, covering a wide variety of topics. If you haven’t had the chance to pick it up yet, I recommend doing so. It is a fairly quick read, one I’m sure I’ll be going back to periodically.