Category Archives: Books

Faith: an escape from life?

It’s always satisfying when you find different things you’ve read and listened to coming together to form a cohesive argument, helping you to look at a subject from different angles that you wouldn’t have thought of without those outside sources informing your thinking process. Earlier this week, I was listening to the highly entertaining and informative 2008 Terry Lectures Series from Yale University, given by Terry Eagleton, on Faith and Fundamentalism: Is Belief in Richard Dawkins Necessary for Salvation? One of Eagleton’s points in his second lecture gave me an epiphany on how to make a point in an essay I had been working on over the weekend, and also connected arguments Irish philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins makes in his second book, The Fidelity of Betrayal, with the larger subject I was working on. I’ve reread a couple chapters of Rollins’ book this week, and in doing so, was reminded of this statement on faith and the “transformative truth” of Christianity, from the chapter Eclipsing God.
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Listening into the silences…

One of the great things about the house I’m renting now is the big backyard, with a little pond that has fountains in it just outside the back door, and a deck bordered on two sides by flowerbeds. The beds need a little work; right now they contain both a red rose bush that is in full bloom and a couple stalks of corn that have wilted from the recent heat wave here in Nashville. That same heat wave has meant that the back deck has not gotten much usage yet, but one night last week, after reading a comment my friend Andrew posted on twitter – “I would like to recommend that you stop whatever you’re doing and go look at the moon” – I was prompted to move beyond my good intentions to sit out there and actually do so. I was just finishing up work for the night, music preparation on the song This Kiss, orchestrated by Carl Marsh, for a concert Beth Nielsen Chapman will be performing with the BBC Concert Orchestra in a couple of weeks (the song, which Beth co-wrote, is best known for having been a big hit for Faith Hill 12 years ago). After sending the files off for proofing, I closed my laptop, poured a glass of Scotch, and went outside to stare up at the moon and smoke my pipe (another thing, incidentally, that was recommend to me by Andrew).
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Winter’s Bone and Rodney Clapp

I’ve only seen a couple of movies this year that I really loved, and at the top of that list is Winter’s Bone (the list also includes Toy Story 3 and Babies. And Crazy Heart, but that’s officially a 2009 release). My review of Winter’s Bone was posted on the Rabbit Room on Friday – click hear to read it – and in the review, I quote from a book I’m reading now that I’m really loving, Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction. His discussion of the role music plays in our lives, the part I quoted from in my review, is very good, but what interested me most about the book, when I first picked it up, is this thought from the first chapter, America’s Southern Accent.

“The strongly southern accent or inflection of democracy as we now know it in the United States may helpfully be discerned by way of contrast. By way of broad and rough contrast, I want to suggest that American democracy is composed of two dominant strains: the democracy of the parade, based predominantly in the North; and the democracy of the revival, predominantly of the South.”

I picked up Rodney’s book just after reading the manuscript for a book my uncle is finishing up on the roots of American Fundamentalism, told through the story of our family, and Rodney’s book provided helpful ways of thinking through some of the things that came up as I read my uncle’s book, as has another book I’m working my way through, Richard Niebuhr’s Social Sources of Denominationalism, published in 1929. If you’re at all interested in the questions of why we believe what we believe and how our surroundings shape what we choose to believe, I highly recommend both of those books. And I’m sure I’ll be writing more about my uncle’s book as it makes its way towards publication.

The tension between pedagogical caution and honesty

I was rereading Reinhold Niebuhr’s first book (published in 1929) earlier today – it holds the distinction as having my favorite book title, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic – while Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Evening Service, Op. 37 was playing on the record player in the next room, and a pork sausage omelette was cooking on the stove. The book is a series of journal entries from Niebuhr’s first pastorate, where, fresh of out seminary, he would serve for 15 years before returning to the academy where he would spend the rest of his life. The entry that jumped out at me today was written in 1916, when he was just 24 years old. It immediately made me think of several conversations I’ve had recently with friends about the place of honesty and discernment in what to address in our work, especially as it relates to writing about childhood faith, my primary area of interest at the moment.

I had a letter from Professor L___ today suggesting that I return to college and prepare myself for the teaching profession. A year ago I was certain that I would do that. Now I am not so sure. Nevertheless the academic life has its allurements. It is really simpler than the ministry. As a teacher your only task is to discover the truth. As a preacher you must conserve other interests besides the truth. It is your business to deal circumspectly with the whole religious inheritance lest the virtues which are involved in the older traditions perish through your iconoclasm. That is a formidable task and a harassing one; for one can never be quite sure where pedagogical caution ends and dishonesty begins.
What is particularly disquieting to a young man in the ministry is the fact that some of his fine old colleagues make such a virtue of their ignorance. They are sure that there is no Second Isaiah and have never heard that Deuteronomy represents a later development in the law. I can’t blame them for not having all the bright new knowledge of a recent seminarian (not quite as new as the seminarian imagines); but the ministry is the only profession in which you can make a virtue of ignorance. If you have read nothing but commentaries for twenty years, that is supposed to invest you with an aura of sanctity and piety. Every profession has its traditions and its traditionalists. But the traditionalists in the pulpit are much more certain than the others that the Lord is on their side.

The War Prayer (National Day of Prayer, 2010)

The one tradition I have on this blog, so it seems, is to post Mark Twain’s The War Prayer every other year on the National Day of Prayer. I did so back in 2006, again in 2008, and here we are in 2010. This is my favorite short story, with a concluding line that I think is brilliant. It seems especially apropos this year, in light of the recent Nashville Flood, in the way it examines the words behind our words. My friend Scott wrote a good post related to this earlier in the week, God’s blessings are mysterious sometimes…”

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Acting Out Our Hopes and Yearnings

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece for the Rabbit Room about one of my favorite theologians, Walter Brueggemann, and a trip I took with my friend Scott down to Waco, TX, to attend a conference where Brueggemann was the featured speaker. I included an excerpt from one of his sermons, found in his book The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness, and a pretty good discussion developed in the comments. Here’s how the piece starts:

Listening to Walter Brueggemann, it is impossible not to feel a sense of history. At 76 years old, as arguably the preeminent Old Testament scholar of our day, Brueggemann has written more than 58 books, many about the prophets of old. To hear him talk is to become convinced that you’re listening to one of those prophets, someone delivering a message directly from God. At a recent conference at Truett Seminary in Waco, TX, where the topic was prophetic preaching, I sat under his teaching for two days with a sense of reverence and gratefulness for the opportunity, and a growing understanding that what I was hearing would shape the way I approached the scriptures in future readings.
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In the Garden of North American Martyrs

This month I participated in the The Faith and Fiction Round Table, organized by My Friend Amy, in a discussion of Tobias Wolff’s collection of short stories, In the Garden of North American Martyrs. We discussed the book by e-mail over the course of a week, and Amy has split up the conversation for the different participants to post on their blogs. Below is my part of the discussion. Be sure to check out the other links at the end of the post for the rest of the conversation.

Amy: I’m interested in what all of you think about choosing In the Garden of the North American Martyrs as the title for the collection. Do you think it works as a title to pull together this best of collection, and do you find that story to center or anchor the other stories or do you think it’s just the most appealing title from a marketing angle?

Pete: I think it’s a very fitting title for the collection. Most of the stories deal with someone struggling against something, often themselves, and losing.

Simon: In fact, the title story ‘In the Garden of the North American Martyrs’ was one of the ones which left me cold – I enjoyed the build up, but the climax where Mary went a bit crazy and macabre felt forced and didn’t work for me. I couldn’t really work out why he chose this as the title story, or even why the title was chosen for that particular story.
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The Fiddler’s Gun on Feeding the Gnome

I once read an interview with a guitar player-can’t remember who, maybe U2’s The Edge-who said that he could tell the difference between the kind of solos he played after a full day of travel and the kind he played after having a day off to read great books and partake of great art. Pete Peterson wrote a blog post a couple days ago about this same concept, something he learned from Stephen King’s book On Writing, one of my favorite books about writing.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he refers to the creative force behind his work as the little gnome that he keeps in the basement. When King sits down to write, the gnome, if he’s been treated well, passes his stories up through the cracks in the floorboards and, a page at a time, a book begins to take shape.

If you haven’t read On Writing, you should. It’s a great book, both a memoir and a manual. One of the most enduring things that I took away from it was this concept of the gnome in the basement, a grimy little guy down there in the dark that’s slaving away at all hours, stockpiling his little tales, and essays, and notes so that when the lazy tenant upstairs comes knocking, he’s got something to offer up. The key to the keeping of the gnome is that the little guy needs to be well-kept.

Read the rest of Pete’s post.

A couple weeks ago on a flight to Seattle, I read Pete’s debut novel The Fiddler’s Gun (published by the Rabbit Room Press) cover to cover, starting when I boarded the plane in Nashville and finishing shortly before we landed in Seattle. I’m planning on writing a proper review at some point in the near future to talk about how much I loved it, but for now I’ll say that if you haven’t read it yet, you really should. You can find out more about it on Pete’s website.

The Sacred Texts Around Which We Shape Our Lives

At the Christian Scholars Conference I attended a couple weeks ago, Barbara Brown Taylor presented a talk on, “The Power of Narrative in the Age of Twitter.”  She talked about the need to privilege certain narratives,  saying, “I was attending to so many other narratives, I was losing track of the thread of my own.”  We must be careful in choosing the narratives we absorb, because, “the plots we privilege shape the plots of our own lives, and if they aren’t beautiful, we won’t be either.”  She quoted Milosz from Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz, as saying, “I feel the heavy illness of American society, and feel its root is mass media.”

I thought of her talk last night while reading Neal Postman’s Conscientious Objections.  In the essay The Conservative Outlook, he has this to say:
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Imagined Infallibility

After writing the post earlier this week about fundamentalism and intellectual humility, I picked up David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything to read another chapter before bed. And, as frequently happens when reading or talking to David, I found a fleshed-out expression of a thought that had been swirling around in my head for a while. This excerpt is under the heading “Imagined Infallibility,” on pages 148-149.

But this call to be merely human – to know that we don’t know much, even as we deeply suspect and fervently believe all kinds of things – isn’t good enough for many of us. I’ll confess that, in my attempts to get taken seriously and feel sufficiently affirmed (I know, it’s a black hole), it very often feels less than satisfying. We’re prone to speak beyond what we know, to overdo it, as if what we have to say and decree is more than interpretation, more than just humans trying to make sense of things. We want to come off as successful and informed. Despite the biblical injunction against oaths and excess verbiage, we lay it on thick. We’re part of the put-on.

We fall into this because the language we know and are immersed in is often the language of the con game. We try to draw people in. We exaggerate. We deny our anxiety, even to ourselves, and we attribute inappropriate weight to the images and stories and ideas we concoct to give sense and meaning to life. We even drag talk of “God’s will” into it. To keep the chaos at bay – a chaos we sense will have its way with us if all we’re doing is interpreting – we develop what Ernst Becker calls “imagined infallibility.” We attribute an absolute infallibility and inerrancy to our interpretations to immunize ourselves against the madness, as a way of vying for immortality and keeping above the fray. Others, we might say, deal in opinions and interpretations, but we have convictions and gut feelings and strong intuitions. We get the job done. We know when we’re right, and we’re right. No doubt. No fear.

But the pretense of certainty comes at a cost. If we think our certainty is what drives success and, in the end, the very (so-called) faith that saves us, our honest confusion will become a source of shame and a sign of weakness. Yet we keep our doubts hidden. This is precisely where the biblical witness urges what I’m tempted to call a mandatory agnosticism. This is where we’re summoned to know that we don’t know. This is where we’re called to confess.

While we’re often rewarded in life for playing at absolute confidence, the pretense and the mind games are corrosive to the possibility of community, friendship, and redeeming love. Imagine letting go of the psychic burden of certainty. Imagine backing down from our imagined infallibility and assuming the mantle of a mere human. Imagine the poetic/prophetic way of relating that would be possible. We might become capable of questioning ourselves out loud. We might let a little air in. In the most life-giving sense, we might get a little religion.